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Former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt takes on new roles

Sunday, January 15, 2012 | 3:52 p.m. CST; updated 10:18 a.m. CST, Monday, January 16, 2012

ST. LOUIS — If timing is everything, as the saying goes, then Matt Blunt might consider a job giving advice on when to make career changes.

Blunt picked 2004 as the year to run for governor of Missouri. It turned into a strong year for Republicans and, at age 33, he became America's youngest governor.

In his new incarnation, Blunt last year became chief spokesman and a lobbyist in Washington for Detroit's Big Three automakers just as the American automotive industry was enjoying a resurgence.

It is one of several positions Blunt holds these days that enable him to prove life after Missouri's governor's mansion can be rewarding and, he says, enjoyable.

As president of the American Automotive Policy Council, one of Blunt's main tasks is reminding Congress of the industry's recent success, a rare good news story about American manufacturing.

Two years after General Motors and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy, both companies, along with Ford, reported profits and increasing sales in 2011. Their turnaround is hailed in reports such as a recent Time magazine cover story titled "How America Started Selling Cars Again."

Yet many Americans — some of them in Congress — see the automotive industry as bloated and inefficient, surviving on government bailouts.

"What some people believe about automobile manufacturers, the American-based companies, isn't accurate," Blunt said. "The companies today are fundamentally different than they were just a few years ago, in terms of what they make and how they make it."

Blunt's portfolio these days includes the vital matters affecting American carmakers, including global trade agreements, new fuel economy standards and a recent recommendation to ban texting and cellphone use in automobiles.

Blunt, who turned 41 in November, is leading a life different from his sometimes rocky four years as a young governor, in which he endured criticism for his cuts to Medicaid and low approval ratings at times.

After leaving office in January 2009, he moved swiftly into the world of business. Besides his Big Three job, he is a director for Copart Inc., an online auto auction company in California that claims to sell 1 million vehicles yearly. He is a senior adviser for Rubicon Global, an Atlanta-based waste management firm, and an advisory board member for private equity funds.

Rather than living in Jefferson City or Springfield, Blunt, his wife, Melanie, and sons Branch, 6, and Brooks, who turned 2 on New Year's Day, reside now in Middleburg, Va., situated in rolling horse country that has been home to such notables as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor.

Blunt says he is comfortable in a part of the country where he has spent considerable time. He graduated from the Naval Academy in nearby Annapolis, Md., and he was stationed on a Virginia-based ship. His wife is a Virginia native.

In recent interviews, Blunt, whose father, Roy, just completed his first year in the U.S. Senate, said he has no regrets in deciding not to seek a second term.

"I loved being governor. It was a great experience. I was proud of what we accomplished," he said. "But I don't know that over another four-year term, I would have been particularly effective. I don't know there's much that I would have gotten done."

He added, "I don't necessarily miss politics."

Blunt is dealing now with politics of a different order, in some cases global. He was outspoken last fall in pressing to keep Japan out of the budding Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade alliance, noting Japan's protectionist policies that keep out all but a few thousand American cars yearly.

Trade is a key focus for Blunt, but just one of many focuses for an industry that experts say needs help.

Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor of Chicago-based Cars.com, said he sees "a gross misunderstanding in Washington about developing and building cars and how long it takes, about the inconsistency of the market and about inconsistency of regulation and the effects on companies."

Until two years ago, Ford, Chrysler and GM were aligned in Washington with the Auto Alliance, which also includes foreign automakers. But the interests of domestic and foreign companies diverged just as legislation and government rules were becoming more consequential.

Blunt's background as a governor likely played a role in his selection as the industry sought to navigate tricky political waters in Congress after the controversial bailouts.

Blunt technically is not a registered federal lobbyist because he spends less than 20 percent of his time lobbying. Nevertheless, he works the halls of Congress, trumpeting the key role of the Big Three in the nation's economy. GM, Ford and Chrysler will add 34,000 jobs in coming years, he said, which translates to 400,000 jobs in the economy supported by automotive plants.

"The American companies are competitive, they are productive and they are making great products," Blunt said, sounding like the car salesman he has become. "Because of that, what recovery we do have in the American economy, the automobile makers are playing a big part."

As a self-described conservative Republican, Blunt might find old allies who decry the $80 billion bailout of Chrysler and GM. Most of the money has been paid back, and the White House projected the cost to taxpayers at $14 billion.

"Decisions that President Bush made at the end of his administration and President Obama made early in his administration have had a successful outcome," he said. "It's always an academic debate whether a different road map would have led to the success."

As governor, Blunt was an advocate of smaller government. Those sensibilities could come into play as government moves more aggressively to dictate vehicle design.

After an agreement with both domestic and foreign manufacturers, the administration of President Barack Obama in November proposed nearly doubling fuel economy requirements to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. In 2010, the administration completed rules to raise the fuel standard to 35.5 mpg by 2016. The current requirement for new autos is 27.3 mpg.

Foreign-based manufacturers think the White House has tilted the rules in favor of the domestic industry. True or not, the Big Three will need to be vigilant as regulations are implemented; their focus will be on easing the burden those regulations could cause.

"It's the classic 'devil's in the details,' and it will be very important to see the rules filed by all the agencies," Blunt said.

Automakers took notice recently when the National Transportation Safety Board said states should ban texting and cellphone use in vehicles. The board made the recommendation after concluding that a driver's texting was a factor in a deadly pileup near St. Louis.

Blunt said companies he represents are paying close attention because "they really do believe that you can integrate technology into a vehicle that's not only safe but safer than the way most drivers use technology today."

"As you think about what you might or might not ban in a vehicle, it's important to do it in a way that wouldn't inhibit safety ideas some of the companies have today, and at the same time be realistic," he said. "Quite frankly, I don't think (a cellphone ban is) very realistic."

As a lobbyist, Blunt seemingly could have a ready ear from father Roy, who won election recently to a Senate GOP leadership slot. Matt Blunt said he doesn't intend to talk business at family gatherings, perhaps because Roy Blunt has in the past been criticized for ties to lobbyists in his family and otherwise.

Matt's brother, Andy Blunt, works at a law firm in Jefferson City with a long list of lobbying clients. His sister, Amy, maintains some lobbying clients in her business in the state capital, which largely deals with helping candidates comply with Federal Election Commission rules. Roy Blunt's wife, Abigail, was a lobbyist for tobacco giant Philip Morris before joining Kraft's legislative affairs team.

Andy Blunt said his brother arrived in a position that suits his talents.

"He's a great manager and executive and has the ability to focus on details while thinking about long-term strategy," he said.

Matt Blunt, who acknowledged driving a German-made automobile in the past, also is walking the talk now — driving it, actually.

He gets around Washington in a Chrysler-made Jeep Grand Cherokee.


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