Why did God create politicians? To make used car salesmen look good.
People who are disgusted with Congress would probably find that old joke funny -- and they might also laugh if they knew some car salesmen have become politicians. But voters in five congressional districts might not be laughing -- they elected smooth-talking veteran car dealers to represent them on Capitol Hill.
In the 113th Congress, five members of the House, each one a Republican, have spent a considerable part of their lives selling cars for a living. Reps. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, Scott Rigell of Virginia, Vern Buchanan of Florida, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania and John Campbell of California have owned and/or operated auto dealerships. And while Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) has never sold cars, he got rich by investing in companies that did.
For years, these five salesmen convinced thousands of people in and around their districts to drive out of a car lot on the side of a highway in a blue Chevy or silver Camry or something else that would fulfill their needs -- or their dreams. Ideally, the vehicles were fully loaded with leather interior.
Now the lawmakers are using some of these same techniques to woo voters -- and to make their way on Capitol Hill, often promoting policies favorable to the auto industry.
The soft-spoken Rigell told E&E Daily that as he walks the halls of Congress, he sometimes reminds himself of the adage, "Unless you love everybody, you can't sell anybody." That maxim comes courtesy of decades running an auto dealership in Norfolk, Va.
Rigell said he is quite aware of the shifting political climate in the Old Dominion and the country, and he believes men of his profession can play a major role during high-stakes congressional negotiations, where compromise is often necessary.
"I tell ya, when I see my Democratic friends, both in the district and here, some see it as almost an enemy thing. You know, I don't see it that way. When I see a person, my Democratic colleague, I don't see the enemy. I see a prospect, because I really believe in our product," Rigell said recently. "I'm in the persuasion business, and I'm going to show him or her some common ground, and let's find that and let's move on. That's really, that's how I approach it."
Capitol Hill crises like the recent government shutdown favor people with advanced negotiating skills, said Jason Walker, a Pennsylvania-based financial consultant who closely monitors the retail and auto industries.
"You have to appreciate that the smartest people in the room are always those who make you buy something. It's an art. If people like that are in Congress, they could definitely bring people together," Walker told E&E Daily. "Remember, in a dealership, you get paid when you close [on a deal]. So a good salesman knows how to close."
With Congress due to consider a sweeping highway bill in 2014 that will very likely change the national transportation landscape for years to come, the auto industry acknowledges the benefits of having lawmakers who possess intimate knowledge of their product. Transportation leaders have yet to say how autos will make out in the bill, but some not-so-subtle grumblings among certain advocacy groups suggest that these members will help advance provisions advantageous to car drivers and manufacturers -- at the expense of mass transit, bicyclists and pedestrians.
Bailey Wood with the National Automobile Dealers Association said that Shuster's car-selling experience prior to public life has helped him with colleagues who need to be persuaded about using federal dollars to pay for the transportation system.
"Shuster applies his firsthand experience as an auto dealer: Let's find some common ground," Wood said.
Another industry lobbyist said that in some districts, "cars are big business ... especially [in] small towns. Auto dealers are major employers. Members of Congress know this, especially the ones who were dealers."
An industry ally with a gavel
During their stints in showrooms, these Republicans excelled in the art of the deal, turning a business some people view as vulgar into lucrative enterprises. Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who will have a major say on car issues in the next year's reauthorization of the 2012 transportation law, MAP-21, brags that during a decadelong stretch at a Chrysler dealership near Altoona, Pa., he became known as a deal closer.
Shuster got his start through his father's political friend Maurice Lawruk, a real estate developer from Altoona who invested in Shuster Chrysler in East Freedom, Pa., in the 1990s. Longtime colleagues of Bill's father, Bud, say they remember Bill's car salesman days. Former Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), long before serving as Transportation secretary during the George W. Bush administration, bought a car from Bill Shuster.
"I see in him vestiges of his father, Bud, his knowledge about transportation issues, and a drive to want to get things done," Mineta told E&E Daily earlier this year (E&E Daily, April 10).
Bud Shuster also chaired the Transportation panel in the House in the 1990s, and during his tenure, he became known as the "King of Asphalt" for advancing highway legislation that allowed construction of hundreds of miles of roadways.
On the second day of the government shutdown, the younger Shuster prominently called out Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But aides noted that in private conversations, Shuster applied more collegial tactics to promote bipartisan talks.
Shuster also says he continues to sell his pro-government ideals to his anti-government tea party colleagues, an ongoing task.
Meanwhile, until very recently, Rigell was not seeking the adoration of political analysts, yet his more centrist views and determination to get his colleagues to get along during the shutdown briefly put the spotlight on him.
Rigell's congressional district is about 200 miles away from Washington, D.C., and home to military units and a super-sized marina with impressive ports that command federal attention. The 16-day shutdown hit coastal Virginia quite hard, prompting some leading Republicans in the state to question their party's direction. Democrats wasted little time trying to turn the gubernatorial contest there this fall into a referendum on the shutdown.
Like Kelly and Renacci, Rigell arrived to Capitol Hill as part of the 2010 tea party wave that gave Republicans control of the House. He defeated Democratic incumbent Glenn Nye by a comfortable margin, yet he narrowly won re-election last year during a presidential cycle that saw Virginia -- and his own district -- favoring President Obama. Still a backbencher, Rigell has played to the base at times, criticizing administration policies such as the "Cash for Clunkers" car-trading program and aspects of the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
Observers note that he has treaded the political lines carefully, famously abandoning his Americans for Tax Reform pledge to never vote for a tax increase, so as to not alienate crucial moderates and independents in his district. Earlier this month, Rigell offered his view of the body politic in an interview on CNN.
"The political fabric of our country is being ripped apart by gerrymandered districts. In my communication, I first try to prepare that in my own way by just identifying those values that hold us all together as Americans," Rigell said. "Now, we have differences, of course. ... We need to remember civility is not weakness, elevate the facts and make the case that way."
Rigell, Buchanan, Kelly and Shuster voted in favor of ending the shutdown and raising the country's borrowing authority. Renacci and Campbell voted against it. Renacci hails from a conservative area outside Cleveland, and Campbell isn't running for re-election.
The good life -- up to a point
Three of the auto dealers made Roll Call's list of 50 richest members of Congress this year. Buchanan was No. 12, with an estimated net worth of $31.65 million. Rigell was No. 28, with a net worth estimated at $12.6 million. Campbell was No. 38, with a net worth of $9.35 million. Renacci, the investor, came in at No. 10, with a $35.9 million net worth.
While they no longer take part in day-to-day transactions of convertibles and SUVs, these men remain deep believers that the automobile industry helps boost the country's economy.
Campbell, who owned 13 franchises in Southern California, selling Saturns, Nissans and Audis, among other brands, said Republicans are typically good car salesmen, which in turn makes them astute lawmakers.
They "are fiercely independent people with a 'Let me sink or swim' attitude," Campbell said.
Business may be good, but it does not make public officials immune from controversy. Buchanan, who sits on the chamber's Ways and Means panel with Renacci and Kelly, has been hit by allegations of misuse of funds and improper fundraising.
The House Ethics Committee has cleared Buchanan of any wrongdoing, but last year, Timothy Mobley, his former business partner, pleaded guilty to illegally reimbursing their employees for more than $80,000 in donations made to Buchanan's election efforts.
When asked about this during a recent floor vote in the House, Buchanan told E&E Daily he would not comment.
Buchanan reportedly said he was "totally unaware" of his partner's conduct. That claim was not enough to help him avoid "most corrupt" member of Congress honors from the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which included him on the list five out of the last six years.
Buchanan and the other car guys often pop on the radar of better government groups, since they routinely receive political donations from the car industry. For instance, the Automotive Free International Trade (AFIT) Political Action Committee has contributed $5,000 for Shuster's re-election efforts. Since 2002, the group has contributed more than $6.4 million to political candidates and organizations to promote the free-trade interests of international auto dealers.
"AFIT-PAC was critical to providing me the resources to get elected to Congress. As a second generation owner/operator and past PAC supporter, I plan to speak up on Capitol Hill on behalf of our industry," Kelly says on the group's website.
Coping with a new generation
Kelly, who ran his family's Cadillac dealership in Butler, Pa., before entering Congress, remembers that a few decades ago, selling a car was an honorable profession. The dealer helped families acquire the machine that would take them to church and the supermarket and everyplace else they needed to go. These cars, and back then most of them were large cars that pumped plenty of emissions into the air, offered independence. Inventory and fuel prices were cheaper then, and the younger generation lived in the suburbs.
Although driving trends have changed over the years, Kelly says millions of people still depend on cars.
"When you start talking, especially to seniors, you know one of their greatest concerns is when they lose the rights to drive a car. They lose their license. That's absolutely terrifying to them because they don't want to have to rely on somebody else to take them to the doctors, take them where they have to be, and I think they look at that and public transportation is something that is not easy for them," Kelly told E&E Daily recently.
Recent studies have found that America's 20-somethings are not as fond about driving as their parents and grandparents were at their age (Greenwire, Oct. 1). For these millenials, the collapse of the economy five years ago hurt their job search, and many of them are choosing to live in the cities or in transit-oriented areas because they either cannot afford a car or don't want to rely on one for their commutes.
Automakers are looking to the car guys in Congress to help the industry adapt to this new market.
"I was amazed when I saw almost, it's over a quarter of the millenials don't even, they don't have no desire for a license. That's incredible," Kelly added.
Kelly has made himself known in leadership circles, often utilizing his showroom bravado to round up support for GOP efforts or remind colleagues why voters backed them. This was evident during a floor speech last year, which garnered him a standing ovation from Republicans.
"When you want to see a nation that doesn't want to participate, but wants to dominate in the world market, then let them rise. Take the heavy boot off the throat of America's job creators and let them breathe," he said on the floor.
Shuster, who is 52, has been dismissive about the millenials' transportation habits, insisting that eventually, most people will drive.
"When you're in rural America, you need a car. People in my district need a car," Shuster said. "It's the only way to get around."
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