Perhaps it’s because he’s not up for election this year, but U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, wasn’t trying to score any points when he visited The Vindicator last week.
Indeed, Portman’s hour-long Editorial Board meeting was devoid of the political platitudes and campaign rhetoric we often hear from candidates for office.
With the future of General Motors’ Lordstown assembly complex hanging in a balance, we needed an objective view from someone who has been in contact with the decision-makers in Detroit, including CEO Mary Barra.
The bottom line: Portman does not believe the giant automaker has made a decision about the future of its 52-year-old plant in the Mahoning Valley. Other sources have told us the same thing.
The senator also sought to reassure us that Barra genuinely cares about the workers at the plant and the people of this region.
He described her as a gentle, kind person who recognizes that the Lordstown complex has been “a good plant” not only because it has long history of making profitable cars, but because of the quality workforce.
A month ago, The Vindicator published an editorial with the headline “GM CEO Barra continues to play games with the Valley.” Here’s what we said, in part:
“By her silence regarding the future of General Motors’ Lordstown assembly complex, company Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra has made it clear she doesn’t care about the well-being of the employees, in particular, or the residents of the Mahoning Valley, in general.
“Barra’s refusal to say anything publicly about GM’s plans for the 52-year-old car assembly complex has led to wild speculation and, more troublingly, workers pulling up stakes.
“The region has been on tenterhooks since the company first began slowing production last year of the once best-selling Chevrolet Cruze.”
Sen. Portman said he understands the Valley’s deep concern has been triggered by the uncertainty and the absence of information, but he pledged to continue the fight for a new assembly line and a new product for Lordstown.
The senator revealed that he will meet with Barra when she visits Washington in two weeks at which time he will again urge her and other company executives to commit to the Valley.
Portman also intends to bring up GM’s decision to build a sleeker version of the iconic Chevrolet Blazer at its plant in Mexico that’s home to the Cruze hatchback. The announcement added insult to the injury suffered by this area as a result of GM eliminating two production shifts, leaving just one shift with 1,500 workers. A total of 2,700 good-paying jobs have been eliminated.
Adding to the anxiety at the Lordstown complex is the fact that sales of the Cruze have been soft for a couple of years. By contrast, demand for crossovers, SUVs and trucks has been soaring.
CRITICISM OF BARRA, TRUMP
That’s why we have been harsh in our criticism of GM CEO Barra and of Republican President Donald Trump, who came to the Valley during the 2016 presidential campaign and promised to revive the domestic auto industry. Trump said he would punish American companies that fail to bring back auto jobs created abroad, but he has been silent on the Blazer being built in Mexico.
The president also has not commented on the shrinking of the workforce at the Lordstown assembly complex.
Sen. Portman’s commitment to keep fighting for this region is timely and necessary given Barra’s comments to Ohio’s other senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown.
The CEO reportedly told Brown that retooling the plant would be cost-prohibitive, and she also refused to commit to keeping the facility open.
Therein lies our anxiety. If GM does not have a replacement for the Chevrolet Cruze when its production life comes to an end, the plant will be shuttered.
Therefore, Portman intends to make the case that the U.S.-Mexico trade agreement announced last week by Trump is designed to boost domestic auto production.
In addition, the sweeping tax bill passed by Congress at the urging of the president makes it advantageous for automakers to invest in the U.S.
Portman, who has established a working relationship with the White House, is well positioned to argue in favor of GM’s Lordstown complex when he meets with Barra and others.
We would also urge him to convey this message to GM on behalf of the people of the Mahoning Valley: Silence isn’t golden.