RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Businessman Wilbur Ross goes in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today. The billionaire investor has made his fortune buying up troubled companies with the hopes of turning them around. That includes some steel mills. Others have pointed to the fact that some of his business dealings have pushed jobs overseas.
To get a better sense of Wilbur Ross and his qualifications to lead the Commerce Department, we've called up Cory Gardner. He's a Republican senator from Colorado. Senator, welcome back to the program.
CORY GARDNER: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: I understand you met Wilbur Ross in your office back in December. What kind of impression did he make?
GARDNER: I did. You know, he was just getting started. I think I was one of the first senators that he met with during the confirmation process. It was a good conversation. Obviously, there's a learning curve both to any new incoming administration about the duties that they have ahead of them, and I look forward to visiting him today, as I'm sure he has a little bit clearer idea of the duties that he faces going forward and some of the some of the leadership opportunities he has at commerce.
MARTIN: How do you respond to Democrats who say that this is just another case of Donald Trump tapping another billionaire who's out of touch? I mean, conservative economist Peter Morici has said, quote, "private-sector management skills don't necessarily transfer well across industries or into the public sector."
GARDNER: I think it's great that we have people with business backgrounds that are leading agencies that are important to business. I think one of the down turn - down - shortcomings of the last eight years was the fact that we had a president who didn't really spend any time in the private sector, who spent eight years as a community organizer - I mean, spent previous years as a community organizer, but eight years showing that he didn't have the skills to manage the nation's business in a way that actually expanded opportunity, created jobs at the level that we needed to.
And so this is an important role. I think commerce under President Obama was led by a billionaire, Penny Pritzker. And Penny, I thought, did a very good job of building relationships with Congress and reaching across the aisle. And I actually encouraged Wilbur Ross to model his relationships with Congress in the fashion of the previous secretary of commerce under President Obama.
MARTIN: We mentioned that Wilbur Ross is known for taking failing companies and trying to turn them around. He's done that with steel mills in the past. I want to play a bit of tape from International Steelworkers President Leo Gerard. This is what he had to say about Ross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
LEO GERARD: Well, look at - the relationship we had with him was one where he was open and accessible and candid and honest. And he put a lot of money back into the mills and - so that literally tens of thousands of jobs were saved.
MARTIN: Is this a nominee you could see your Democratic colleagues getting behind?
GARDNER: You know, I hope so. A couple of weeks ago when Senator Schumer announced that they had narrowed down the opposition they would oppose to different Cabinet members, it seemed like it was every single Cabinet member that they were going to oppose. And so at this point, I hope that he has met with enough members of the Democratic Party to gain their
support. He does have good relationships from - with workers around - around his organizations. In fact, he was invited in Miami to speak to a union conference. I think that's something that not all Republicans get the chance to do.
But the fact is he understands the importance of taking failing businesses, make them succeed. And that's what we need in this country, a turnaround specialist who can look at the regulations that are burdening our businesses, get this country back on track and help make it easier to start a business instead of more difficult.
MARTIN: Let's talk about trade. Wilbur Ross has indicated that he agrees with President-elect Trump. He wants to renegotiate some critical trade deals, NAFTA - primary. You've talked about the importance of the U.S. helping to write rules for international trade and free trade. So what do you want to hear from Mr. Ross on this?
GARDNER: It is extremely important that the United States lead on matters of trade. We want a world trade opportunity that looks like it's based on U.S. norms and the values that we hold, in terms of free markets and economic value. So it is important that we continue to advance trade alliances and opportunities to enter into trade agreements.
- I Colorado, if you look at our state, four and a half billion dollars of exports go to regions around Asia. I think we have to show that we are going to lead. We're going to give nations an alternative to other economic powerhouses, emerging powerhouses whether that emerging powerhouse is China or India.
We need to make sure that we stand up and lead and give people an alternative, an option to do business with the United States. And that's going to be the first question that I ask to Mr. Ross this morning, is what we can do to help promote trade opportunities for this country. We can't - we can't wither and draw away from trade.
MARTIN: Very briefly - Wilbur Ross has released an ethics plan. He's agreed to divest some of his investments to avoid conflicts of interest. Are you satisfied with that plan?
GARDNER: You know, I'm going to the plan this morning. I think he's agreed to step away from dozens of businesses that he's been a part of and funds, divest himself of stock and ownership. So I think it's important that they are transparent about this and look forward to hearing from him this morning on that.
MARTIN: Cory Gardner is a Republican senator from the state of Colorado. Senator, thanks for taking the time.
GARDNER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.