Carmakers turn to Capitol Hill vets in tariff messaging fight
Washington — At a time when automakers are fighting to push back against tariffs implemented and proposed by President Donald Trump, the group that lobbies for foreign-owned automakers tapped a former top aide to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to lead its Washington communications office.
Now nearly three months into his job as executive vice president of public affairs for the Association of Global Automakers, Don Stewart, a 20-year veteran of Capitol Hill, traded one pressure-packed environment for another with carmakers engaged in a full-court press against Trump's tariffs.
"One of the biggest fears I had leaving the Hill, which was such a high-pressure environment, was that I would be bored," said Stewart, who moved to the auto-lobbying sector after 13 years in McConnell's office and stops in the D.C. offices of three other lawmakers. "But since I got to Global, I've been anything but bored."
Stewart is not the only new face on the auto scene in Washington who has been baptized by fire in the pressured political environment that is engulfing carmakers in Washington.
Jeannine Ginivan, began as communications manager for public policy communications for General Motors Co. last June, months before CEO Mary Barra was on Capitol Hill facing a grilling over the company's plans to idle four plants in the U.S.
And Rachel McCleery took over as government and public policy communications manager at Ford Motor Co. in January after stints in the offices of U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Ron Wyden, as well as the U.S. Treasury Department.
Weeks after his hire at the Association of Global Automakers, Stewart — known on Capitol Hill as "Stew" — found himself at the center of a political fight between foreign-owned carmakers and the president over threatened tariffs as high as 25% on imported cars under the guise of national security. The fight came came to a head when his group placed signs on cars on display at the Washington Auto Show that read: "This car is not a national security threat."
Trump has since punted a decision on the import tariffs until November, but automakers are still edgy.
The message on display at the Washington Auto Show was directed at lawmakers like Stewart's former boss, who hold the power to block Trump from unilaterally imposing tariffs — but they have yet not demonstrated a willingness to use it.
Stewart said his new position as one of the auto industry's point-men in the political messaging campaign against the president's tariffs has given him a closer view of investments made by foreign-owned automakers, typically in states in the southeast that helped deliver the presidency to Trump.
"What the president sees a national security threat, West Point, Georgia, sees as jobs," he said, referencing the location of a large Kia Motors plant,
His job is to convince the public — and by extension the lawmakers they voted into office — that putting tariffs on foreign automakers is a bad idea.
"Most people don't know that half the cars built in the U.S. are built by international companies," he said. "One of my main goals is to increase awareness of what these companies are doing in the U.S."
Charting course for GM
Jeannine Ginivan, who worked previously at Volkswagen's and Nissan's D.C. communications offices, leaned on her experience at Volkswagen during the height of its diesel investigations to chart a course for Barra and GM through the political firestorm ignited by the austerity plans.
"The diesel issue at Volkswagen was a great learning experience for me as a PR professional," she said. "It taught me the value of long-standing relationships, truthfulness when you have to communicate in a tough situation."
Ginivan worked for Volkswagen in the German automaker's domestic headquarters in Virginia from 2011 to 2015, so she had a first-hand view of the investigation of allegations Volkswagen rigged hundreds of thousands of diesel cars to cheat U.S. emission standards that resulted in the the largest penalty ever levied by federal regulators on an automaker doing business in the United States.
Ginivan said she relished the chance to move to GM when the opportunity arose, because it meant "working for an American icon of a company, having its global headquarters right in Detroit.
"I had a wonderful experience at Volkswagen, but its headquarters is really far away," she said. "It's definitely easier to get a Delta flight to Detroit."
One of her favorite parts of the job is having the chance to drive the products she is charged with helping to convince legislators the value of.
"I'm a bit of a soccer mom, so I love the (Chevrolet) Tahoe," she said, adding that she also "has a soft spot for electric vehicles" due to experience helping to introduce the Nissan Leaf, which went on sale in the United States in 2011.
Coming home to Ford
Rachel McCleery said going to work for Ford "was kind of like coming home." Her dad has worked for the Dearborn company for 27 years.
"I grew up with Ford being part of my life, part of my identity," McCleery said. "It's a really cool experience for both of us to be working for the company at the same time."
McCleery enjoys "being able to get in the vehicles, seeing how it drives" after years of being around the Dearborn company. "I got to take the Lincoln MKZ out for a spin," she said. "I like how sleek it was. It felt comfortable and cozy."
McCleery said working for the Dearborn company now after watching her father's long tenure is "so much different than most jobs in D.C., which are much more transient."