Rep. George Miller doesn't follow the Old West maxim, "Know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."
The veteran Democratic congressman in 1992 held the first House hearing on sweatshop abuses in the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth 5,700 miles from his hometown in Martinez.
Undeterred by the distance and time, he would spend the next 16 years fighting for island labor reforms, spurred by horrific stories of desperately poor people lured into indentured servitude, inhumane working and living conditions, rapes and forced abortions.
Miller introduced bills in six sessions of Congress, wrote letter after letter and made phone call after phone call.
But until Democrats took majority control of Congress in 2006, Miller's crusade amounted to little more than a ripple in the ocean.
Finally, President Bush signed legislation on May 8 that imposed U.S. labor and immigration laws on the chain of 14 islands in the Pacific Ocean north of Guam. Congress extended federal minimum wage standards to the islands in 2007.
"George (Miller) gave a damn about people who were all but invisible to most Americans," said Dennis Greenia, an avid blogger who works for a Washington, D.C.-based anti-sweatshop nonprofit group. "He is a hero among the workers there. They even named their movement after his bill, the Human Dignity Act."
The praise slightly embarrasses Miller, known for his understated ego. It feels good to put the
issue behind him, although it didn't come soon enough for so many people, he said recently over coffee in Martinez.
"There's probably only one other issue that I've been working on longer — water," he said, referring to the perennial Western policy debate. "Some fights, you just can't leave. Look, these people thought they were coming to America and, to me, it was about upholding American standards for human rights."
The Mariana Islands legislation over time devolved, as one of Miller's staffers put it, into a sordid version of "How a Bill Becomes Law."
Linked to bribery and corruption scandals, the tiny commonwealth has played an outsized role in the demise of the careers of convicted Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and others.
Abramoff, a former lobbyist for the island government and its garment factory owners, used the Mariana Islands as part of a vast influence-peddling scheme to secure favorable legislation for his clients and to keep his friends well-funded and in power.
At the same time Abramoff raised campaign cash for Republican leaders and candidates, island textile companies and friendly local officials paid the lobbyist millions of dollars to quash reforms.
Abramoff pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiracy and bribery of a member of Congress, among other charges.
Although most of the case centered on Abramoff and his associates bilking Indian tribal clients, the federal plea agreement also said that he treated a member of Congress, later identified as Ney, and members of the congressman's staff, to all-expenses-paid trips to the islands.
Federal probes of Abramoff and his team have led to the convictions of a dozen people. Rep. John Doolittle, R-Roseville, who will leave office this year, remains under investigation.
The scandal helped push others out of office, notably Abramoff ally and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
It also contributed to the end of the 14-year career of Miller's political nemesis, former House Resources Chairman and Republican Richard Pombo of Tracy. Pombo was never implicated legally in the Abramoff case but critics painted him with the GOP corruption brush and he lost his seat in the 2006 anti-GOP wave that gave Democrats control of Congress.
The island scandal also continues to surface in U.S. news reports. In Colorado, U.S. Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer's ties to them and Abramoff while he served in the House have come under scrutiny.
Initially, the Marianas captured Miller's ire as a fair-trade question.
Garment manufacturing companies largely owned by Chinese businessmen opened plants there to take advantage of its status as a U.S. territory. The textile firms brought in thousands of foreign workers and shipped the clothing tariff and duty free into the United States with "Made in the USA" labels.
It gave the island companies a huge economic advantage over U.S. manufacturers, Miller said.
Congress exempted the islands from federal restrictions when it formed the commonwealth in 1976 because locals feared U.S. law would allow too many foreign workers onto the islands and disrupt the indigenous culture.
As chairman of then-titled Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, Miller sought reforms. But he lost his leadership post — and his ability to hold congressional hearings and put legislation up for votes — when the Republicans took majority control of Congress in 1994.
He didn't give up. He conducted his own investigation and traveled in 1998 to Saipan, the island capital.
It was a heartbreaking trip, Miller said.
The women were "humiliated to have to tell their stories of horrific abuse to a stranger," he said. "And the men were fearful, especially the Bangladeshis who had borrowed money from everyone in their villages to come to the Marianas and couldn't go back home."
Miller recounted, with a pained expression, how he toured a garment factory and saw the workers having a dinner break.
He learned that as soon as he left the plant, the company ordered everyone back to work, removed the food and kept everyone late to make up for the lost time.
"My visit actually hurt them," Miller said, shaking his head.
The congressman and his staff later that year produced a scathing report called "Beneath the American Flag: Labor and Human Rights Abuses in the CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands)."
Abramoff's team billed the Mariana Islands government for dozens of hours spent countering what they called Miller's attacks on the commonwealth. Records show they researched Miller's campaign contributions, his California district and his association with labor unions.
After the U.S. Senate passed bipartisan Mariana Islands legislation in 2000 sponsored by former Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, Miller said he approached Rep. Don Young of Alaska, then Republican chairman of the renamed House Resources Committee.
"I thought, 'I have it now, this is indisputable,'" Miller recalled. "But Young told me, 'It's never going to happen. It's above my pay grade.' I couldn't believe it."
Young has repeatedly denied that Abramoff influenced any of his congressional decisions.
Top Republican leaders, most of them out of office now, characterized the sweatshop allegations as an unfounded or grossly exaggerated political ploy to constrain the island's burgeoning free-market economy.
But this "petri dish of capitalism," a term DeLay used to describe the islands' business environment, failed to thrive.
Most of the foreign-owned sweatshops have closed down since changes in U.S. trade laws elsewhere reduced the islands' economic advantage. Unemployment plagues the islands and many of its 20,000 estimated foreign workers — many have lived in the Mariana Islands for years — either don't want to go back to their home countries or lack the money to leave.
But the prospect of more tough times in the Mariana Islands cannot diminish the enormity of the work that Miller has done, said U.S. human rights activist Wendy Doromal, a former Mariana Island school teacher.
To celebrate the passage of the labor and immigration reform bills, Doromal gathered recently in Washington, D.C., with some of the many people who had a hand in the campaign.
"George Miller was our champion — he really cared, and what he did for us was very special," said Doromal, who called the congressman one of her heroes.
The group partied at the D'Acqua — a true Italian restaurant where the staff actually speaks Italian — on Pennsylvania Avenue halfway between the Capitol and White House.
Abramoff would remember the place.
When he owned it, he called it "Signatures," a swanky restaurant where Abramoff greased his powerful friendships in a rarefied atmosphere thousands of miles from the island sweatshops that would eventually help send him to prison.
MediaNews Washington, D.C., correspondent Frank Davies contributed to this story.
Reach Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, email@example.com or www.ibabuzz.com/insidepolitics.