Senate hopeful David Perdue has a serious problem in Georgia.
The Republican candidate with a Republican name (his cousin, Sonny Perdue, was the governor) in a Republican state is locked in a dead heat against Democrat Michelle Nunn. It was a race that most thought would be an easy win for the GOP, which is looking to keep retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss seat in Republican control.
Other Republicans like Mitch McConnell, Tom Cotton and Cory Gardner have started to pull away from Democrats in contested races across the country. But Perdue has become ensnared in a raging debate over outsourcing, the global economy, and whether he, as a former CEO of multinational corporations, is part of the solution to Georgia’s economic struggles—or part of the reason it has tumbled to 51st place in unemployment.
Perdue’s resume, which includes time as CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, was supposed to be a major advantage going into the election. He slugged out a GOP primary win over the summer by painting himself as savvy businessman who could fire up an economic turnaround of the state and the country.
But after pulling ahead of Nunn in September, three recent polls have shown Perdue tying or trailing her. The slide began in early October after Politico published a 2005 deposition in which Perdue described his lengthy career sourcing goods and services overseas. The next day, Perdue was asked if he could defend the “outsourcing” charges.
“Defend it?” he said. “I'm proud of it.”
Perdue’s argument then and now has been based on a campaign bio that highlighted his successes and top executive jobs, but made no mention of the less successful parts of his career. His nine-month run as CEO of Pillowtex, for example, began after the company filed for bankruptcy and ended just before the company laid off nearly 7,000 of its workers in North Carolina and closed for good.
Perdue also worked briefly for Gitano Group from 1991 to 1992 as a managing director in the apparel maker’s Singapore office. Perdue’s run at the high-flying, spectacularly-crashing denim brand, which he has never discussed publicly, coincided with a label-switching scheme in the company’s Asian factories that led to the Gitano’s founders presidents pleading guilty to felony fraud and filing for bankruptcy before selling to Fruit of the Loom for a fraction of its previous value.
Perdue’s campaign confirmed to the Daily Beast that he did work briefly at Gitano, but stressed that he had no role in the fraud that brought the company down, and left after less than a year when Sarah Lee recruited him to run its Asian operations from Hong Kong.
The bankruptcies and legal tangles that pop up on Perdue’s resume are to be expected for any journeyman who moved up the ranks of corporate America during two major recessions. That’s just what Perdue did, after working his way through college and grad school in warehouse and construction jobs.
But the outsourcing charge has emerged as a flashpoint against Perdue in Georgia, especially in rural communities around the state where dozens upon dozens of shuttered factories loom over half-empty downtowns. From 1998 to 2008, the state lost 35 percent of its manufacturing jobs, many of them filled by women supplementing their families' farm incomes, as companies closed domestic operations and sought cheap labor overseas—or, in a word, outsourced.”
“Nearly every town in south Georgia once had some type of textile operation or factory of some kind,” said DuBose Porter, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “So when people like David Perdue came into communities like mine, where the Forstmann plant was, and put in a leveraged buyout, that was 1,700 people who lost their jobs. That has been devastating to all of rural Georgia. People feel that at a very real level and David Perdue just does not get it or understand it.”
Perdue’s campaign categorically denies that Perdue himself outsourced jobs, stressing that his responsibilities at companies like Sarah Lee, Haggar, and Reebok were to grow international businesses and open markets for American brands overseas, never eliminate jobs domestically.
“David spent his entire career creating and saving thousands of good jobs here in America,” said Megan Wittemore, Perdue’s spokeswoman. “He focused on expanding operations and sales into new markets to make American companies more competitive, and revitalize American brands.”
The truth about his role in outsourcing jobs seems to be somewhere in the middle. In his job at Sarah Lee, for example, Perdue led overseas operations in Asia, while the parent company back home made plans to close factories and lay off workers domestically.
At Reebok, the company had already begun sourcing goods and services in Asia by the time he began as CEO. In case after case, Perdue didn’t do the outsourcing, but his companies survived and sometimes thrived because of it. He didn’t create the global economy, but he did profit from it handsomely. And that’s become a difficult distinction for him to make.
Perdue has begun to hit back at the Democratic attacks with two new ads of his own. “I've helped create and save thousands of American jobs,” Perdue says with a smile. “Regardless of what Michelle Nunn says.”
Unfortunately for Perdue, the polls say more than a few Georgians aren’t buying that sales pitch.