Maryland has NAFTA fever, or at least it should after this week.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the Clinton administration have turned up the heat in their campaign to sell the North American Free Trade Agreement: The governor used a sister-state agreement with Mexico to stump for the trade pact ++ on Tuesday; on Wednesday, a group of Maryland and Virginia business leaders headed to the White House for a sales pitch; and yesterday's event brought Mr. Schaefer and U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena to South Baltimore's Ellicott Machine Corp.
Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Pena, properly decked out in safety glasses, watched a spray of yellow sparks fly off a machine 10 times the size of the man operating it. The machinist was busy crafting a part of the hydraulic pumps that go inside the dredging equipment that Ellicott Machine produces.
Minutes later, sparks flew again as the two politicians mounted the soapbox -- actually a brightly painted red-white-and-blue Mud Cat dredging machine -- to sing the praises of NAFTA.
"This is a treaty that's going to create jobs!" Mr. Pena shouted to the crowd of about 100 workers and reporters. "If we pass NAFTA, we will have a trading bloc of 370 million consumers . . . and over a $6 trillion economic machine."
"Give NAFTA a chance -- read it," Mr. Schaefer implored. "I can tell you it's absolutely good for America."
At least one group was sold. The company's main union, U.S.Steelworkers Local 15338, capitalized on the attention from yesterday's event to announce its support for NAFTA, which is scheduled for a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 17. The local union endorsed the agreement without consulting its national supervisors, despite the U.S. labor movement's widespread opposition to the pact.
After more than a year of yielding the debate to their foes, supporters of the trade agreement have pushed their campaign into overdrive -- in Maryland and across the nation.
"We're trying to bring this home to people on a very local level, on a very direct level," Mr. Pena said after his speech. "We think the best way to do that is to pick out examples like Ellicott Machines that will thrive with the passage of NAFTA."
Ellicott, the nation's oldest dredging manufacturer, exports about 80 percent of its products. "All of us here recognize that we live on exports," said Ellicott's president, Peter A. Bowe.
The company has sold two of its Mud Cats to Mexico in recent years, despite hefty import duties of 20 percent to 25 percent, which would be phased out under NAFTA. "Our little dredge is about $300,000, and 25 percent of $300,000 is a big nut for these guys to swallow," said Charles A. Sinunu, international sales manager.
The company also hopes that as Mexico's economy improves, that country will invest more in infrastructure, which means more dredging.
Mr. Pena is among a group of Clinton Cabinet members and other administration officials -- including the president -- who are fanning out across the country to lobby for NAFTA. "One of the things we're concentrating on is port cities," said Jennifer A. Watson, a spokeswoman for Mr. Pena. "Cities with a port, we think, are going to see a lot of benefits from NAFTA."
Wednesday's meeting in Washington with about 80 business and political leaders was another method the administration used to spread the word. "Hopefully, they leave as active supporters, with an emphasis on both words," Ms. Watson said.
Peggy Chaplin, an international trade lawyer at Baltimore's Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver firm who attended the meeting, said she is writing a note to all her clients "to take the word back to the community, as we were asked to do."
The meeting was led by Vice President Al Gore; Leon E. Panetta, the administration's budget director; Carol M. Browner, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency; and William Daley, the Chicago businessman whom Mr. Clinton hired to lead the overall lobbying effort. In the audience were academic officials, business leaders and politicians, including Sen. Charles S. Robb and former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, both of Virginia.
"Panetta really laid it on the line," said M. Sigmund Shapiro, president of Samuel Shapiro & Co., a Baltimore customhouse broker and freight forwarder who attended.
"If we don't cut this deal, we are going to lose big time" to the trading blocs being formed in Europe and the Far East.