Wednesday January 23, 2013 | 08:32 AM

WASHINGTON – Ron Kirk is an unabashed proponent of “free trade.” And as the Obama administration’s U.S. trade ambassador, Kirk has been in a position to negotiate the international deals that open foreign markets to American goods, and vice versa.

On the other hand, there are critics in Maine who ask how all of these free trade deals have benefited Maine workers, with U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud among the most vocal and visible of the questioners.

But Tuesday’s announcement that Kirk was stepping down as U.S. trade ambassador was met with some disappointment in the congressman’s office. Because although Kirk was a staunch advocate for free trade, he was also willing to hear Michaud and other Mainers’ out and occasionally take action.

For instance, Kirk’s U.S. Trade Representative office, or USTR, recently raised concerns at the World Trade Organization about whether a financial bailout package for a Nova Scotia paper mill created an uneven playing field for mills in Maine and other paper-making states. Kirk has also gone to bat against China on trade issues important to Maine’s forest products industry.

Looking ahead, Kirk’s departure could have implications on a new trade deal that will affect hundreds of jobs in Maine.

The Obama administration is negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade pact with 10 Pacific nations. One of those nations is Vietnam, a sneaker-producing powerhouse whose low-cost products are a direct competitor with – and potential threat to – the sneakers made in Maine’s three New Balance facilities.

Kirk made an official visit to Maine last summer to tour some of the only athletic footwear factories left in the United States, all the others having been shuttered and their jobs out-sourced to low-wage countries.

Kirk met with New Balance managers and talked with the proud factory-floor workers about how sneakers that used to take 8 days to make were now pumped out in hours due to efficiency upgrades. He also pledged to seriously consider the impact that dropping the current tariff – or import tax – on Vietnamese footwear would have on those 900 Maine jobs in Skowhegan, Norridgewock and Norway.

“We are paying special attention to this particular issue,” Kirk told the Portland Press Herald at the time.

So what happens to that pledge after Kirk leaves?

“In that sense, we are sad to see him go because he has seen first-hand the types of issues we are dealing with [in Maine] all of the time,” said Ed Gilman, Michaud’s spokesman. Gilman added that Michaud plans to raise those issues with Kirk’s yet-to-be-announced successor.

Kirk's departure is unlikely to precipitate any major changes to the White House's trade policies.

“We are hoping those visits and the impressions they left won’t be lost at the USTR overall,” Gilman said.

Rumors have been circulating for weeks that Kirk planned to return to his home state of Texas after Obama’s second inauguration. It now appears, given Tuesday’s announcement, that he may have had an early going-away party last weekend with groups on both sides of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.

The trade ambassador was a special guest at the inauguration party thrown Sunday in Washington, DC, by the Maine-based law firm Preti Flaherty and the embassy of New Zealand, which is one of the countries hoping to benefit from the TPP. More than 400 people – most from Maine – attended the affair.

During his remarks, Kirk joked that he and Michaud “have a little different opinion about trade.” But early into his stint on the job, Michaud challenged Kirk to visit Maine to see the mills and other workplaces affected by trade policies. Kirk said he agreed as long as Michaud would be willing to sit down and work with him.

“We have developed a wonderful friendship and, because of that, I think we have been able to move forward with a much more thoughtful and balanced trade policy,” Kirk said. “And I want to thank Mike and all of the other members of the delegation for embracing me and listening with me and working with me.”

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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