March 31, 2009 at 1:00 am

Obama picks ex-deputy Labor secretary to be auto industry point man

Former MSU professor will monitor GM and Chrysler restructuring

President Barack Obama announced that Edward Montgomery, right, a former deputy Labor secretary, will oversee auto industry rescue efforts. (Doug Mills / New York Times)

Washington -- The Obama administration's point man for bringing aid to battered auto industry communities is a wide-ranging academic with a sensitivity to the industry's struggles, a colleague said Monday.

Edward Montgomery will leave his post as dean of the University of Maryland's College of Social and Behavioral Sciences to head White House efforts to soften what is likely to be even more job loss and other disruption as General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC restructure.

"I think he's just an absolutely perfect choice for the position," Robert Schwab, the college's associate dean, said Monday. "He is incredibly smart, he's a pleasure to work with and work for ... He knows quite a bit about the auto industry and about regional economics."

Announcing the appointment on Monday, President Barack Obama said Montgomery will "cut through red tape and ensure that the full resources of our federal government are leveraged to assist the workers, communities and regions that rely on our auto industry."

The effort "could be the difference between life and death for us," said Scott Klein, mayor pro tem of Hamtramck. Klein said the impact of more plant closings on cities like his could be catastrophic: GM's $4.3 million in annual payments in lieu of taxes to the city make up about a quarter of its general-fund budget.

Montgomery spent four years in the economics department at Michigan State University, from 1986 to 1990. He served in the Labor Department during the Clinton administration, first as the department's chief economist before rising to deputy secretary, the department's No. 2 position, for the last 18 months of the administration.

"The problems of Michigan and Indiana and Ohio are much deeper than the problems of the University of Maryland," Schwab said.

"But he has brought disparate groups together that wanted to go in very different ways and forged consensus.

"He's incredibly creative. When a problem comes up, he's the one who says, 'Hey, I don't think we're thinking of this in the right way.' ""> (202) 662-8738