Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Count Josephine Cooper, Toyota Motor Corp.’s top Washington-based policy maker, among those skeptical of the U.S. government’s claim it won’t promote American auto makers at the detriment of foreign brands.

“Ron Bloom said (in his speech here), ‘We don’t intend to get into policy and all of those things,’” Cooper, group vice president-government affairs for Toyota Motor North America Inc., tells Ward’s in an interview on the sidelines of the annual automotive conference here.

“It’s easy to say that, but somebody said you need to be a little paranoid. And I think I’m more than a little paranoid about this.”

Cooper says Toyota just 10 days ago fought a last-minute provision inserted in an Energy and Water Appropriations Bill that specified “vehicles purchased by the Department of Energy and Distribution can only be Ford (Motor Co.), (General Motors Co.), and Chrysler (Group LLC).

“If there’s too much of that protectionism and ‘Buy American’ that gets woven into a lot of the legislation going forward, it could be even more detrimental to Toyota than (it already has been),” she says.

There also are some tax provisions in Washington being “interpreted” in a way that’s going to put Toyota and other auto makers at a disadvantage. “Because of the government involvement (in the auto industry), it will be a challenge to follow everything that’s going on to be sure it remains a level playing field.”

Cooper worries “well-intended” politicians and other political leaders unintentionally may favor domestic auto makers because of a pervasive “rooting-for-the-home-team” mood in the country right now.

Earlier at MBS, Sean McAlinden, chief economist for the Center for Automotive Research, said he believes government will try to craft policy favoring the Detroit Three “because they have a vested interest.”

Cooper says an auto fatigue of sorts is being felt in Washington, but GM, Chrysler and the auto industry, in general, still are hot topics at social events.

At one such occasion, she expressed her displeasure over President Obama’s plea for consumers to buy American during his April 30 press conference announcing Chrysler’s bankruptcy, telling White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod Toyota “makes American cars; we make cars in America; we have American employees, 35,000 of them.”

Cooper says Axelrod told her, “‘We know that. We’ve just got to get through this bankruptcy.’”

She also has proposed a meeting between Obama and Toyota executives, which has yet to occur.

However, Cooper and Toyota U.S. sales chief Jim Lentz have met with the White House Auto Task Force on the issue of monetary support for struggling auto suppliers.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com