Global trade guru

Global trade guru
© Greg Nash

Linda Dempsey thrives on tackling the complex challenges of global trade.

Dempsey, vice president of international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), has built a reputation as a trade expert who brings passion, tenacity and honesty to the job of boiling down arcane trade policy. 

Her efforts are focused on getting the best deal for manufacturers in the competitive global market, which she said means promoting economic growth, jobs and fair competition. 

“You see what matters in people’s lives, and what matters to people’s lives is having a job, having a way to make income,” she told The Hill in a recent interview.

While she might lobby on behalf of manufacturers — NAM is 12,000 members strong — she is a fierce advocate of free trade and remains focused on the bigger picture of how the benefits of trade can reach into the United States and world economies. 

With trade a top priority for the Obama administration, Dempsey is juggling numerous massive projects, from deciphering the contents of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to working on a U.S.-European Union deal. She is also busy with intellectual property protection, investment issues and the elimination of trade barriers.

“Linda is one of Washington’s most effective and tenacious advocates for the business community,” said John Murphy, vice president of international affairs at the Chamber of Commerce. “She always sticks to her principles, which are the very best.” 

What guides her view of trade is a core set of principles, she said, that are this nation’s foundation — respect for private property, fair treatment, due process when it comes to the government and nondiscrimination.

“Those are the same principles we need the world community to adopt,” she said. 

Don’t try to call trade deals “anti-democratic” because it is a fight you will lose to Dempsey.

“Our trade agreements are based on the most fundamental principles our government has,” she said. 

“I think our country was pretty much started on the notion that people get to have a voice in our government. So when you look at trade agreements, it’s that same voice. It’s making sure that the basic rules that apply to our products apply to their products.”

“I get on these subjects, and I’m very passionate that, if we’re going to grow manufacturing in our country, then we need all other countries in the world to apply those same fundamental rules to us. We need that fair competition. We don’t need government putting their thumb on the scale, and that’s what trade is all about. If you want to increase jobs and increase growth, you’ve got to achieve that.” 

Dempsey loves being swamped with work and admits to getting easily bored.

“I couldn’t wait to go to law school, loved debate, loved that type of stuff,” she said. 

“I got to Berkeley and really did not find it that challenging or that relevant the first year.” 

To fill the unexpected void, she embarked on a three-year stint in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. 

Living in one of the poorest nations in the world gave her a fresh perspective and new motivation — the international bug had bitten.  

So she returned to California and law school focused on the “very things that would have an impact.”

She consumed every international and business class she could take, graduated and headed for Washington, where she has remained entrenched in trade.

“Being able to understand everything, from the top line down to the details, matters. It certainly matters in a trade agreement,” she said. 

“We live in a hugely competitive global economy, but when you really look at it, how can you make a difference?”

She did stints at a couple of law firms before making her way to then-Sen. Bill Bradley’s (D-N.J.) office in the fall of 1995, where she also worked on immigration reform. After Bradley left office, she became trade counsel for the Senate Finance Committee and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) until he retired in 2000. 

For her and the NAM team, it is about helping manufacturers grow, succeed and compete in the global economy while ensuring trading rules are enforced. 

“I hope what I can do is to take those policies, take the legislation, take the language in trade agreements and help translate what our companies need to succeed in that tough, tough global economy,” she said. 


Dempsey’s aim is to bridge the gap between current manufacturing export output and what she considers the nation’s unrealized and massive trading potential.

Her strengths lie in her ability to gauge shifts in the ever-changing world of trade while digesting the issues and melding that with her decades of experience.

That is what has made her the go-to trade guru who grasps the policy intricacies, transforms complicated jargon into clear explanations and does it all with aplomb.

Brian Pomper, with Akin Gump, called her “a force of nature.”

“She is absolutely a take-charge person who gets things done.”

Aric Newhouse, head lobbyist at NAM, said Dempsey is at the center of all trade policy debates in Washington.

“She’s successful at it,” Newhouse said. “She’s trustworthy, loyal, honest and thoughtful, and she can cut through the craziness of trade policy.”

Her intellect and her passion put Dempsey in a unique position to change minds in a city of few bipartisan efforts.

“Her ability to clearly explain the issues gives her the power of persuasion, and she has the ability to change minds,” said Devry Boughner Vorwerk who works for Cargill.

After first connecting with Dempsey “very quickly, Linda became my go-to gal,” Vorwerk said, adding that if she needs to quickly understand an issue, Dempsey is who she asks. 

“She’s a leader and role model among women in international trade.”