Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

LAS VEGAS – Fearing potential legislation restricting free trade, the American International Automobile Dealers Assn. is rallying the troops.

“A boxer once said, ‘Everyone has a great game plan until you get punched in the face,’” says AIADA President Cody Lusk. “We’re about to get punched and kicked.”

At an annual meeting here during the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention, AIADA leaders urge foreign-brand dealers to prepare to fight what is perceived as disturbing trade-protectionism signals from leaders of the new Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress.

“Now is the time for Washington to hear from the real U.S. auto industry, encompassing all of America’s brands, from Acura to Volvo,” Lusk tells the gathering.

No specific legislation against free trade has been introduced – yet, says AIADA board member Joseph O’Brien of Peoria, IL, who owns 18 dealerships (four domestic brands and eight foreign brands) in five states.

“But we are watching for something that could be detrimental,” he tells Ward’s. “The leadership of the new Congress has shown signs that there will be protectionism for the Big Three.”

John Hawkins, the new AIADA chairman and a Utah dealer, tells the gathering: “There are real and dangerous threats lurking. The time to act is now. I hope you will join me in standing up as one united voice on behalf of this great industry.”

Don Beyer, outgoing association chairman, appeals to everyone, saying: “We are here to work with Republicans and Democrats, with libertarians, contrarians, abolitionists, conservatives and progressives of all stripes, across all aisles, to keep moving our industry – and communities – forward.”

Although preaching to the choir, AIADA leaders tell their members how much they and foreign auto makers have contributed to the American economy. That includes investing $36 billion in U.S. plants and automotive facilities, and employing 2 million Americans – 500,000 of them at dealerships.

“The good news is we have the facts on our side,” Lusk says. “The bad news is in Washington, many times the facts do not matter. In Congress, the facts often get lost or tossed out for the sake of politics or votes.”

Combined U.S. market share for foreign auto makers has reached 46%. Some see that as a dangerous erosion of the American auto industry. Lusk sees it as earning the right for a greater say.

“As the old ‘Made in Detroit’ slogan gets tossed into the ring, we understand more clearly than ever that Detroit is no longer the sole voice on behalf of the U.S. auto industry,” he says.

Lusk accuses some Congress members of drawing a battle line separating domestic auto makers “from so-called ‘foreign’ manufacturers.”

He singles out U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) as someone to worry about.

Dingell is the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee. His district includes much of the home base of the American auto industry.

Dingell voices the possible need for federal policies “to maintain and strengthen the U.S. industrial base.” He says currency manipulation, market closings and unfair competition “simply have to be addressed.”

To Lusk, statements like that show “trade will clearly be in the crosshairs of this Congress, and we must remain vigilant in showcasing its benefits before our lawmakers.”

Much of the AIADA meeting, in a ballroom of the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel evokes patriotism, with images of the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol and waving American flags appearing on jumbo video screens.

Throughout the meeting, AIADA leaders express relief they have resolved a major disagreement that developed last year over whether the association should set up its own political-action committee apart from NADA’s.

The issue divided the leadership and led to the departure of Lusk’s predecessor. The PAC proposal ultimately was scratched.

Members praise Beyer, a Volvo dealer and former Virginia lieutenant governor, for stepping in as AIADA chairman for seven months and helping to end the tumultuous times and hard feelings.

The meeting also honors the late, great dealer, Dave Mungenast. He died in September of cancer at age 71. He was a motorcycle repairman and Hollywood stuntman who became an original Honda motorcycle dealer in the U.S., then a Honda, Acura, Toyota, Lexus and Dodge auto dealer in metro St. Louis.

Friends and family remember him as kind, considerate, honest and filled with integrity.

“Dave would say, ‘I’m just a motorcycle dealer who got lucky,’ but we all knew that was not true,” Lusk says.

From now on, AIADA’s top achievement award will be known as the David Mungenast Lifetime Achievement Award.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com