STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This story takes us to the shores of Lake Erie - to Ashtabula, Ohio, a port city with access to Canada and beyond through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. Its economy is tied to Ohio's steel industry. It's name-checked in an old Bob Dylan song; I'll look for you in old Honolulu, San Francisco and Ashtabula. And it's the hometown of U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer, who was President Trump's chief negotiator in talks with China. In that city, NPR's Jim Zarroli found the backstory of a hard-line trade negotiator.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: A bitter wind is whipping off Lake Erie on an overcast day in Ashtabula. Nearby sits an enormous ramp that's used to load coal onto freighters. Ray Gruber has lived in the area all his life.
RAY GRUBER: When I was a kid - 1960s, OK? - this was a pretty booming operation down here. You had all your steel mills in Pittsburgh, and this would be the port of entry for all these ore boats. I mean, this is where all the activities happened.
ZARROLI: Before he retired, Gruber worked as a machinist. The company where he started out is no longer around.
GRUBER: When that recession in the '70s happened, a lot of places moved out and a lot of companies moved out. We became the Rust Belt. You know, a lot of stores became empty.
ZARROLI: These days, the waterfront is home to coffee bars and brew pubs. The harbor attracts tourists from Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Much less freight comes through the port. Among those old enough to remember the way the port used to be is trade representative Robert Lighthizer who grew up in town. Lighthizer is a longtime critic of global trade. In a 2017 speech, he said unfair practices by China and other countries have devastated American manufacturers.
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ROBERT LIGHTHIZER: There has been a growing feeling that the system that has developed in recent years is not quite fair to American workers in manufacturing and that we need to change.
ZARROLI: Those who know him say Lighthizer's views on trade were shaped in part by watching steel's decline in Ashtabula and the financial hardship that followed. Today Lighthizer is the man charged with carrying out Trump's ambitious trade agenda. Among other things, the administration has imposed steep import tariffs, which are a kind of tax on goods brought into the United States. For his hometown, those changes are bringing uncertainty but also some hope. Over the years, Ashtabula County has worked hard to rebuild its economy. Manufacturers here today tend to be smaller and tied to global trade. There are companies such as Welded Tubes which makes auto parts.
DAVID JENKINS: We are a supplier to Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru.
ZARROLI: David Jenkins is Welded Tubes' vice president of operations. The company makes metal backing for car seat headrests. The parts are sent to seat manufacturers in Canada and Mexico. Then those seats are brought back to the U.S. and installed in cars. The new trade agreement replacing NAFTA requires cars to use more parts made in North America, and Jenkins says that could mean more orders.
JENKINS: Now that all the auto manufacturers are looking at onshoring additional manufacturing and assembly plants, it's very good for Welded Tubes.
ZARROLI: In fact, a big problem Jenkins faces today is finding workers. He wants to expand. But these policies being carried out by Lighthizer have had a downside. Welded Tubes makes parts made of steel, and steel prices have jumped.
JENKINS: We're looking at a $300- to $20,000-a-month increase in the operating cost.
ZARROLI: And that's because of steel.
JENKINS: That's because of steel.
ZARROLI: In many ways, tariffs have complicated life for manufacturers here. Grand River Rubber and Plastics makes belts that get shipped to China and used in vacuum cleaners. President Donald Chaplin says the vacuum cleaner business has slowed since tariffs took effect. He's also having to pay more for a polymer he uses in production. Still, Chaplin shares a view often expressed by Lighthizer. He hopes the troubles will be temporary, and he is cautiously optimistic about trade. Over the years, many of his customers have fled to low-wage countries and no longer buy from him. But, he says, when his company tries to export to other countries, it often faces unfair barriers. Chaplin says Trump is trying to ensure a level playing field for manufacturers like him.
DONALD CHAPLIN: I don't agree with all that he's done and definitely some of the - some of his methods sometimes. I think if you take him at his word, I think he does have the American worker at heart. I think he is concerned about America.
ZARROLI: Like many people in Ashtabula, Chaplin hopes Trump can encourage companies that have fled abroad to come back. If he and Lighthizer succeed in restoring some of the luster to American manufacturing, they say, it will be worth the pain those policies are causing. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.