A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
When President Joe Biden comes to Maine on Friday, he will be hosted by a businesswoman who has been among his boosters.
But she has also helped show why his rival’s policies on foreign trade have appeal in legacy manufacturing states, making Auburn Manufacturing CEO Kathie Leonard, whose company will host Biden’s remarks, an illustrative figure in Maine’s political and business sectors.
The context: Leonard has been the face of her heat-resistant textile company’s yearslong trade war with China over subsidies to competitors. All the while, she has had nuanced political views.
The company saw a major victory in 2017, when a federal ruling found that unfairly cheap imports were hurting the company. Another positive decision for the company was handed down in February, but it will be a slog toward relief on that front.
Former President Donald Trump was known for a hard line on China and has escalated his rhetoric during a nascent 2024 campaign that has him as the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination to take on Biden next year. Leonard credited Trump for attention paid to foreign trade in a recent interview with the news arm of the conservative Maine Policy Institute and praised his tariffs for helping her business in 2019.
Yet she has been a vocal Biden supporter. She was on a call with reporters to tout his economic ideas during his 2020 campaign against Trump. Since then, she has also urged policies at the state level to help rebuild a manufacturing base here that has struggled to shift from legacy industries.
“What I like about the vice president’s plan is it is based on experience,” she said during the last campaign, speaking of Biden. “He’s been in government for so long.”
Maine on trade: But all of this also shows how trade and manufacturing policies hit our unique state. Remember that Trump stormed his party in 2016 by taking a traditionally liberal view against free-trade agreements, including one with Asian countries inked under former President Barack Obama, whose vice president was Biden.
Free trade was generally supported by U.S. politicians in the 1990s into the 2000s, but Maine figures have aligned in favor of protectionism given the hit that foreign competition has caused to the paper and other historic industries.
Leonard’s cause has been championed by Maine politicians of all stripes. U.S. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, took her to Obama’s 2015 inaugural address. Former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican who represented the 2nd Congressional District for two terms, did a news conference with her the following year.
What she shows: National observers have seen links between Trump and Biden policies on China. In April, Yahoo News columnist Rick Newman summed it up like this: “Biden’s policy toward China differs from Trump’s, but the goal is the same: To rework supply chains so more crucial goods come from American suppliers and friendly nations and fewer come from China.”
Newman’s conclusion was that neither approach may succeed. But this is a safe policy agenda, and it has always found an audience in Maine. Leonard is a good representative of this in practice, and she also helps show the intersections between Trump and Biden.