Gutierrez approved to head Commerce Dept.

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Senate on Monday confirmed Carlos Gutierrez as the new commerce secretary, a position in which he will lead the Bush administration’s efforts to revive the country’s beleaguered manufacturing sector.

Senators confirmed Gutierrez, 51, by voice vote. He will replace Donald Evans, who resigned to return to Texas after serving at the Commerce Department during President Bush’s first term.

“Mr. Gutierrez has my strong support,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Commerce Committee.

Gutierrez was head of the Kellogg Co., the world’s largest cereal maker. He joined Kellogg in 1975 as a sales representative, selling cereal from a van in Mexico City, and rose through the ranks until he led the entire company in April 1999.

Turning around Kellogg’s fading fortunes by focusing sales on various higher-end products, he became one of the most prominent Hispanic business leaders in the country.

“I believe that Mr. Gutierrez’s impressive background and experience will serve him well in this position,” said Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, the committee’s ranking Democrat.

As head of Kellogg, a big user of sugar, Gutierrez sought to end the government’s quota system, which drives up domestic prices. He told the senators he would recuse himself from participating in sugar issues while at Commerce if ethics lawyers ruled he had a conflict of interest. The Senate approved Kellogg Co. chief executive Carlos Gutierrez by a voice vote Monday to head the Commerce Department, where he will face pressure to trim the mammoth U.S. trade deficit and stop the loss of manufacturing jobs to China.

Gutierrez, who fled Cuba as a child with his family after the communists took power more than four decades ago, becomes the first Hispanic to head the department.

He moves from the breakfast cereal and snack food company to the head of a sprawling government bureaucracy that historically has been a cheerleader for U.S. business.

One of the biggest challenges Gutierrez will face is reducing the U.S. trade deficit, Sen. Daniel Inouye, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, said during debate on the nomination.

“Just this month, our trade deficit hit an astounding and record-breaking $60.3 billion. And I’m sure that all of us will agree that this is entirely unacceptable,” Inouye said.

Overall, U.S. imports of goods and services could exceed exports by more than $600 billion when final 2004 figures are in. The deficit with China could surpass $160 billion -- or more than one-quarter of the overall gap.

“Corporations have discovered there are a billion people out there who will work for very little money,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. “There’s someone in China today that’s making Huffy bicycles. That man or woman took the job of someone in Ohio that had made $11 an hour.”

Gutierrez could make an early trip to China as part of the bilateral Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, which brings together top officials from the two countries every year.

The 51-year-old corporate executive rose through the ranks at Kellogg without the benefit of a college education. He began in Mexico City, where he sold cereal to grocery stores out of the back of a van.

“With a lot of hard work, 10 years later he was general manager of Kellogg’s Mexico division. Fifteen years after that, he was running the whole company. It’s a great American success story by any measure,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, an Alaskan Republican.

At his confirmation hearing, Gutierrez promised to bring the same energy to improving opportunities for all U.S. companies by striving to reduce “trade and regulatory barriers that unreasonably burden our businesses and their workers.”

He also pledged to push for improvement in the United States’ ability to forecast hazardous weather and ocean conditions, like the tsunami that killed more than 234,000 people in Asia last month. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration accounts for almost 60 percent of the Commerce Department’s budget.