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Will Detroit debates rev up auto, trade issues among Dem presidential hopefuls?

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — Workers, auto industry officials and political experts expect the Democratic presidential candidates will address issues such as trade, auto emissions rules and the future of manufacturing when they debate Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit.

President Donald Trump, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right,  and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, left, participate in the USMCA signing ceremony, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Among the auto-related issues that remain unresolved in Washington, D.C., are a proposed agreement to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, gas mileage rules for rapidly approaching model years and regulations about driverless vehicles.

Republican President Donald Trump won Michigan in part by attacking NAFTA and vowing to force Detroit's automakers to build more factories in America. The Democratic challengers have made clear they want to retake the state and have attacked Trump as failing to fulfill his promises to the working class.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who has pushed Democrats to adopt populist trade positions to combat Trump's appeal in the Midwest, said trade is likely to be a potential flash point between the presidential candidates in Detroit. 

"It's likely to come up, and it should because I think that's how President Trump won," Dingell said. "He showed an empathy to people who have been affected by these issues."

Three CNN debate moderators will be asking the questions to the 20 candidates over two nights and may avoid auto-related topics. But if the Miami debates are any indication, some candidates will look to appeal to unionized workers and target auto issues even on non-automotive queries.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, used the Miami debate stage in June to attack General Motors Co. for idling its Lordstown, Ohio, factory and its 1,800 workers. 

Other candidates are likely to try to follow Ryan's lead in spotlighting auto-related issues in Detroit, said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with the bipartisan Grassroots Midwest political consulting firm in Lansing. 

"The candidates are certain to be asked about the auto industry in specific and durable goods manufacturing in general because obviously Michigan and the upper Midwest are very reliant on that," Hemond said.

"For Democratic candidates looking to pull votes in Michigan and the upper Midwest, they would be well served to talk about that in response to a question about the auto industry or the USMCA" — Trump's proposed pact to replace NAFTA.

What auto interests seek

Auto industry groups are interested in the Democrats' policy positions. The Trump administration has pursued looser regulations on emissions and fuel economy in hopes of reducing costs and increasing flexibility for automakers.  

Layed off UAW Lordstown worker Craig Lynn, of Youngstown, talks to a trades representative about continuing education in front of a Drive It Home Ohio community support banner with citizens' signatures supporting layed-off UAW workers.

The automakers' primary focus will be on how the candidates' proposals will affect the overall vitality of the auto sector, said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents domestic and foreign car manufacturers in Washington, D.C. 

"Automakers, along with their suppliers and dealers, generate billions of dollars for the US economy and employ tens of thousands of skilled workers in all 50 states," Bergquist said. ... We hope that the candidates recognize the impact of the auto industry on the U.S. economy and keep that in mind when developing their policies." 

Automakers and suppliers are concerned about the views of candidates on trade, currency exchange, fuel economy, greenhouse gas rules and technology policies, said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

"They’ll be interested in knowing the candidates’ economic plans — specifically as they relate to U.S. manufacturing and employment and how they plan to address climate change,” Dziczek said.

Another interested group is the United Auto Workers union, which dominates Democratic politics in Michigan and retains influence within the national party. But the UAW didn't endorse before Michigan's 2016 primary, when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders upset front runner and eventual nominee Hillary Clinton. 

The UAW emphasized trade, increasing workers' incomes, health care and collective bargaining rights in the 2016 election and its backing of Clinton failed to stop Trump from prevailing in Michigan by 10,704 votes.

The union didn't respond to a request for comment.

GM plant idlings

One hot-button issue that could arise again in the Detroit debates is GM's idling of four plants in the United States and Canada, and its hope of selling another one in Lordstown, Ohio to an electric truck maker. Lordstown is one of four U.S. plants whose futures will be decided in national contract talks between GM and the union.

Steve Burns, founder of electric truck maker Workhorse Group Inc., is working behind the scenes on his plan to take over the sprawling General Motors Lordstown plant that stopped producing Chevrolet Cruze compact cars in March.

Trump initially attacked GM CEO Mary Barra and UAW leaders for failing to stop the Lordstown idling. The president said in a March trip to Ohio that the union's leaders "could have kept (GM) in that gorgeous plant in Lordstown" and he attacked Barra for the factory idlings as the rest of the economy grows.

GM notes it has invested $570 million in Michigan and $700 million in Ohio so far in 2019. The company says 1,700 employees from its idled plants, including nearly 1,000 Lordstown employees, have accepted transfers to one of the company's other plants. 

The UAW has said it would prefer GM restart the Lordstown factory and commit to producing a vehicle there. 

Ryan, who represents the district with the Lordstown plant, at the time called Trump's criticism "offensive and does nothing to help bring back the manufacturing jobs he promised to my district."

During the Miami debate, Ryan attacked GM and Trump.

"And his administration just in the last two years, we lost 4,000 jobs out of the General Motors facility," he said. "That rippled throughout our community. General Motors got a tax cut, General Motors got a bailout. And then they have the audacity to move a new car that they’re going to produce to Mexico." 

For Ryan, the issue is personal.

"I've had family members that have had to unbolt a machine from the factory floor, put it in a box, and ship it to China," he said at the June debate.

Trade issues

The Trump administration has pressured Congress to approve a new U.S. Mexico Canada trade agreement that is supposed to replace the NAFTA agreement that Trump campaigned against three years ago.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has defended his support of NAFTA when he was a senator in 1993, saying it "made sense at the moment."

President Donald Trump, Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right,  and Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto, left, participate in the USMCA signing ceremony in November 2018.

Other Democratic presidential hopefuls, especially Sanders, have attacked Trump's proposed NAFTA replacement. "Do not send it to Congress unless it includes strong and swift enforcement mechanisms to raise the wages of workers and stop corporations from outsourcing American jobs to Mexico,” the self-declared democratic socialist said during an April campaign stop in Macomb County.

The agreement, now before Congress, calls for increasing from 62.5% to 75% the percentage of a car's parts that have to come from the U.S., Canada or Mexico to qualify for duty-free treatment. Additionally, the USMCA requires that 40-45% of an auto's content be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour.

It contains provisions to protect up to 2.6 million cars and $32.4 billion worth of parts imported from Canada and Mexico from tariffs on imported vehicles that are being considered separately by the Trump administration. Vehicles not meeting the requirements would be subject to a 2.5% duty.

The Democrats have called for action to reduce climate change, which could spark discussion about the Trump administration's effort to roll back stringent gas mileage rules that were adopted by the Obama administration. 

The Trump administration announced last year its intention to ease stringent gas-mileage rules that would have required fleets averaging nearly 55 miles per gallon by 2025. The administration proposed a freeze to keep the automakers to an average fleetwide fuel economy of 39 miles per gallon from next year through 2026.

In a high-profile rebuke of the Trump administration, four of the nation's biggest  carmakers reached an agreement on gas mileage rules with California on Thursday. The plan calls for them to voluntarily increase the average fuel economy of their fleets to about 50 miles per gallon by the end of the 2026 model year, despite the Trump administration's roll back efforts.  

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, speaks on the campus of Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, in this Saturday, March 30, 2019 file photo. Ryan says he’s running for president.

The deal, negotiated directly between the California Air Resources Board and Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen AG, Honda Motor Co. and BMW AG, could undercut the Trump administration's mileage rules. 

Environmentalists are hoping the Democratic hopefuls promise to reinstate stringent gas mileage rules for all automakers, said Ariel Hayes, national political director of the Sierra Club. 

“With transportation being the leading source of carbon pollution, the continued transition to cleaner vehicles is not merely an obligation but a huge opportunity for Detroit," Hayes said. "The next president has the chance to help revitalize Detroit with investments in the burgeoning electric vehicle market and we fully expect that to be a major topic of conversation in the weeks and months ahead.”


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing