By Patrick Crowley
Enquirer staff writer
WILDER - China's economy typically doesn't rank among the top issues in Northern Kentucky statehouse races.
But in the first confrontation between candidates in Campbell County's 67th House District race, Democrat Dennis Keene and Republican Mark Hayden are engaged in a running battle over the production of Chinese steel and the loss of American jobs.
The row started last week after Keene and Campbell County Democratic Party leaders took issue with a seminar offered by Greenebaum Doll & McDonald, the law firm where Hayden is a partner and litigator.
The seminar, put on in March by the firm's Louisville office, offered U.S. companies advice on how to set up manufacturing and other businesses in China.
Hayden did not participate in the seminar and said the firm was merely dispensing advice to clients interested in expanding overseas.
But Keene's campaign said Newport Steel - one of the largest employers in the 67th District - has lost about 500 jobs to countries such as China, where steel can be produced more cheaply than in the United States.
"Attorney Hayden has been more interested in the economic and political culture in China," said Eric Gentry, a Democratic strategist advising Keene. "He should spend more time worrying about the loss of jobs to Kentucky families."
Hayden, a Wilder lawyer in his first campaign, has been aggressive in portraying Keene - a Wilder city councilman - and his campaign handlers as "slanderous" liars.
He calls them purveyors of "gutter politics" who "tell half-truths and play off irrational fears."
Hayden said Keene and the Democrats are clearly reaching in trying to make any direct link between the seminar and the loss of jobs at Newport Steel.
After discussing the company's situation with executives at NS Group - Newport Steel's parent company - Hayden said he learned that several years ago China overloaded the global market with steel.
"This oversupply of steel drove down the market price," Hayden said.
"This is simple supply-and-demand economics. The price of steel dropped so low that it was uneconomical for Newport Steel to operate its steel-melting and rolling equipment."
The equipment was sold, which accounted for the loss of jobs, Hayden said.
But Hayden also appears to have mischaracterized the involvement of Wilder City Council in trying to help Newport Steel at a time when the company was struggling to compete against cheaper Chinese steel.
Hayden said that, as a member of City Council, Keene "sat idly by and watched numerous jobs leave Newport Steel and didn't even bother to meet with Newport Steel officials."
But Keene said that as a member of Wilder City Council he helped form a committee that reached out to discuss issues and problems with businesses in the city, including Newport Steel.
Hayden was dismissive of Keene's efforts.
"Glad to hear that council ... formed a committee," he said. "But was anything done?"
Yes, according to Wilder City Administrator Terry Vance.
Though the city did not directly address the issue of Chinese steel dumping, officials have met several times with top Newport Steel executives.
Those meetings led to the city capping the amount of money Newport Steel - a huge consumer of electricity - pays under the city's utility tax, Vance said.
"I don't know if any amount of bailout and money would have saved Newport Steel's furnaces," Vance said.
"But we have met with them on numerous occasions ... and tried to take care of some of the stuff that is under our control."
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