Marco Rubio, Rick Scott line up with Trump on trade, frustrating some Florida businesses

Rubio’s pro-tariff stance, which is shared by Florida Sen. Rick Scott, is aimed at changing China’s trade behavior and protecting American jobs.
U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. [Photo by Mark Wilson | Getty Images]
U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. [Photo by Mark Wilson | Getty Images]
Published June 18, 2019|Updated June 18, 2019

A Jacksonville-based importer of toy putty that produces flatulence-mimicking sounds when squeezed, a Fort Lauderdale pet shop with six employees and a Bradenton-area production company that runs events like Disney on Ice and Monster Jam all found themselves in Sen. Marco Rubio’s crosshairs last week.

The issue? President Donald Trump’s threat to expand tariffs on Chinese imports, totaling more than $300 billion.

Rubio responded to a letter by a group of 600 businesses opposed to the tariffs, including major retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, who are concerned about the increased cost of doing business with China.

“Six hundred U.S. companies ask Trump to surrender to China,” Rubio tweeted. “Basically they ask him to allow China to continue to cheat on trade & steal intellectual property, even if doing so would damage America long term, because Chinese retaliation is hurting their business.”

The list of 600 includes 19 Florida-based companies. At least one of them said a 25 percent tariff on Chinese imports would force it to close.

Shelley Patterson is the only full-time employee at Buddy Bike, a North Miami Beach company that builds and distributes specially made tandem bikes for children with special needs. The parts for her bikes are produced in Shenzhen, China, and shipped to a distributor in California, where Patterson purchases them and builds the bikes in South Florida.

She said tariffs on Chinese imports will force the company’s investors to close up shop and families with special needs will be left to purchase an inferior product.

“All I want to do is keep my job and keep building these special bicycles for special-needs families,” Patterson said. “Maybe they want more manufacturing in the United States, but I have no idea where I would manufacture my bikes in the United States. To me, it’s not a lesson to China. It’s, ‘Hey, we’re going to weed all the little guys out and all that’s going to be left is Wal-Mart.’”

Rubio’s pro-tariff stance, which is shared by Florida Sen. Rick Scott, is aimed at changing China’s trade behavior and protecting American jobs.

“Senator Scott has been clear that there may be some short-term pain but we need to take real steps to combat the United States’ greatest geopolitical foe — China,” Scott spokesperson Chris Hartline said in a statement. “What America cannot afford is putting off facing this threat until we are in a much weaker position. Nobody likes tariffs, but if they force China to stop stealing our intellectual property and come to the table to negotiate a fair deal then it will all be worth it.”

Scott also said in an interview with Bloomberg last week: “I don’t think any American should buy one Chinese product.”

But the owner of Augie’s Doggies, a Fort Lauderdale pet-shop that sells plenty of “Made in the USA” products, said it’s impossible to know how many items in her shop that are assembled or manufactured in the U.S. include components or materials from China.

“Chinese imported materials are so innocuous; you don’t know you’re getting something that’s imported from China,” said Augie’s owner Audree Berg as dogs barked in the background. “It’s everywhere. It’s the small things like the materials that go into pet supplies like beds and toys. It’s not like I’m going to be importing something from China, the manufacturers I buy from import from China.”

Berg has six employees and a brick-and-mortar store. She says her biggest competitors these days are not big-box stores but online retailers that sell thousands of different products, potentially minimizing their cost increases if Chinese tariffs expand.

Sharon Hunnewell-Johnson runs Galaxy Fireworks, a Tampa-based company that employs about 30 people year-round and more than 300 people around the July Fourth holiday. She says Chinese tariffs would leave her with no alternative other than raising prices because there’s never been a fireworks manufacturer that hasn’t been based in China.

“Our fireworks cannot and have never been manufactured in the United States,” Nunwell-Johnson said. “We don’t have another choice.”

Trump’s tariff stance stems from his “America First” message honed during the 2016 campaign, when he railed against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have been the largest free-trade deal in the world. He withdrew from the TPP on his first day in office and other Republican politicians like Rubio who once supported most free-trade agreements embraced the president’s populist trade streak.

And as the president prepares to officially launch his 2020 reelection campaign in Central Florida, trade could be a message that entices some voters in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania to vote for him. Six business owners interviewed by the Miami Herald are all opposed to tariffs, but none of them said the president’s stance will change what they do at the ballot box.

Hunnewell-Johnson will support Trump because “Republicans are for pro-business,” even if there’s some internal disagreement on tariffs, while Patterson isn’t backing him no matter what he does on trade.

Stephen Payne, the vice president of public affairs for Feld Entertainment, a Bradenton-area company with 2,000 employees that produces 3,600 live shows like Disney on Ice every year, said the president should continue negotiating with China before imposing tariffs. Feld Entertainment imports toys to sell at its shows, and other toy producers, like Jacksonville-based Ja-Ru, which imports the fart-sounding putty called Flarp, could be forced to increase prices.

“We recognize that there’s been some longstanding trade imbalances in China,” Payne said. “It’s really going to hurt consumers and U.S. businesses. We import a fair number of toys that we sell at our shows and these tariffs really amount to a hit on U.S. consumers and businesses.”

Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet later this month at the G-20 summit in Japan, though a long-term deal to avert tariffs is not expected to be hammered out there.

Rubio, who chairs the Senate Small Business Committee, hopes that tariffs will force China to change its behavior or force companies to change their supply chains so they are not reliant on Chinese manufacturers.

But Berg said it’s small businesses at the end of the supply chain like her pet shop that end up hurting the most.

“Honestly, it’s one of those strange and crazy things,” Berg said. “I hate to use the word trickle, but it’s the unseen effects, the unintended consequences. It happens a lot when politicians or legislatures think they’re doing the right things.”