MONTGOMERY, Alabama — For over one hundred years, Alabamians manufactured clothing in Alexander City for a company called Russell. Today you can still buy Russell Athletic gear in “Alex City” but it won’t be made locally.
It will likely be made by workers in Honduras, El Salvador, or China.
In a strange twist of fate, one of the key figures who helped bring about this transfer of jobs out of Alabama is now campaigning for the Senate seat formerly occupied by Jeff Sessions. Even stranger still, his campaign ads promise that he will “Kill Unfair Trade Deals.”
His name is Luther Strange.
The company now known as Russell Brands was founded in 1902 by Benjamin Russell on the ashes of Alex City’s business district, which had suffered a devastating fire months earlier. Russell expanded and thrived in the decades that followed, eventually becoming the largest manufacturer of athletic apparel and uniforms in the country. It became, at one point, the exclusive producer of uniforms for Major League Baseball.
At its height, Russell employed at least 7,000 people in Alabama.
Strange enters the Russell story as a lobbyist for the powerful political broker and law firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP. Russell paid the firm $660,000 for Strange’s lobbying efforts between 2000 and 2006. One of Russell’s major political focuses at the time: getting the U.S. to sign onto a NAFTA-style free trade agreement with Central American countries.
Details of Strange’s lobbying efforts are hard to come by.
Whatever it was Strange did on behalf of Russell’s free-trade politics, it was effective. The U.S. Senate approved the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as DR-CAFTA, in 2005. The very next year, Russell announced that it would move thousands of jobs out of Alabama to Mexico and Honduras.
“Russell said the company will eliminate about 2,300 jobs from its global workforce of 15,000. About 1,700 of the jobs cuts will be in the United States, with about 1,250 in Alabama,” the Associated Press reported in 2006. “About 1,200 of the U.S. jobs will eventually be replaced by hiring in Honduras and Mexico, the company said.”
The cuts initially left Alex City with 2,000 Russell jobs. But more cuts were to come. The company was purchased by Berkshire-Hathaway and merged into the Fruit of the Loom business. It has since laid off hundreds of more workers in Alex City and Wetumpka.
Russell apparel is now manufactured in facilities all over the world, including four plants in the Dominican Republic, six in El Salvador, and nine in Honduras, according to the company’s 2010 statement. Wages for apparel workers in those countries can be as low as $1 dollar per hour. The company has 19 facilities in China.
Lobbying for the Central American free trade pact was a very lucrative job for Luther Strange. But for thousands of Alabamians it was far more devastating than that 1902 fire that nearly destroyed Alex City.
A senior adviser to the campaign of Judge Roy Moore, the conservative frontrunner for the U.S. Senate in Alabama against Strange in Tuesday’s upcoming GOP primary runoff, told Breitbart News that Strange’s efforts to lobby to send Alabama jobs to Central America and elsewhere is “staggering.”
“Luther Strange’s record of self-dealing is staggering,” Drew Messer, a senior adviser to the Moore campaign, told Breitbart News. “In his former life as a Washington lobbyist, he was paid big bucks to work for implementing CAFTA, the trade debacle that sent thousands dof Alabama jobs to Mexico and Honduras and thousands of small businesses into bankruptcy. Strange’s entire career has been marked by putting his own interest over the people of Alabama.”
The Strange campaign, meanwhile, has not responded to a request for comment.
But what makes all of this even more interesting is the fact that President Donald Trump–who campaigned in 2016 against exactly the type of behavior that Strange engaged in for years as a lobbyist–is now heading to Alabama to campaign for Strange. On Wednesday evening, as more and more details about Strange’s lurid history continued dripping out to the public, Trump even called Strange “tough” on “trade,” among other issues, on Twitter.
Alabama is sooo lucky to have a candidate like "Big" Luther Strange. Smart, tough on crime, borders & trade, loves Vets & Military. Tuesday!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 20, 2017
But surely, at that time, Trump had no idea that Strange–as a lobbyist–supports shipping Alabama jobs overseas to places like Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, and China. But now the White House does, and has not responded to a request for comment. On Thursday morning, Breitbart News informed White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and communications director Hope Hicks of this forthcoming investigative reporting from Breitbart News on Strange’s history on trade, and asked them how President Trump believes this is “tough” on “trade.” They have not commented.
Despite Trump’s and Vice President Mike Pence’s decision to publicly endorse and campaign for Strange–the president will campaign for Strange on Friday, and the vice president on Monday–Moore maintains his lead in the race. Moore’s lead over Strange is in large part because despite the president’s backing politically of Strange, policy-wise Moore is much more in line with the president’s campaign agenda.
Moore, in a recent exclusive interview with Breitbart News here in Montgomery, even made clear he stands with the president on trade policy.
“I think that’s one of the strongest points I agree on with the president,” Moore told Breitbart News when asked what he would do to bring factories and jobs back to America from foreign countries.
“I agreed with the president before he was president,” he continued. “I agree with the president’s position from even before he was president. This is one of the greatest travesties in our country. I agree with free trade—our country was established on free trade—but it’s not free trade when governments become involved in the trade process like what has happened in certain foreign countries. I think that that warps this concept and it’s allowed businesses to go overseas to Mexico, China, wherever. I support the president 100 percent in bringing industry back into our country. Quite frankly, I think it can be brought back into our country—we don’t lose the technology, we don’t lose the skill sets. We can develop those again. I know steel plants, sock factories all across Alabama and the South have been taken.”
Strange, meanwhile, has said nothing of the sort–and as of this writing, refuses to do an interview with Breitbart News supporting the president on trade, and refuses to renounce his lobbyist history for the exact type of trade deals that President Trump campaigned against.
Breitbart News’ Matthew Boyle reported from Montgomery, and Breitbart News’ John Carney reported from New York City.