Like many rural sections in our nation, southern and Southwest Virginia face severe economic challenges. Higher unemployment and greater poverty than the rest of the state have generated frequent pledges by Virginia governors to invest in the regions with “game changing projects” to create new jobs at higher wages. But when Ford Motor Co. came knocking on the commonwealth’s door with a venture that would do just that, a plan to create 2,500 new jobs and generate $3.5 billion by building a battery plant for electric vehicles in the heart of the region, it was rebuffed by a governor whose gaze seems increasingly focused on the White House and his chief Republican rival for his party’s nomination, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.
In the process, Gov. Glenn Youngkin is eschewing a decadeslong tradition of bipartisan efforts to create jobs and spur economic growth. And many now wonder if the commonwealth is creating a new approach that will subject future projects to some ideological litmus test.
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The governor’s action in nixing Ford is unusual. Governors typically work behind the scenes and with leaders of both parties to create economic opportunity. And because Virginia is a state with a one term governor, initiatives started in one administration are often concluded in another. The recent decision by Amazon to locate 25,000 jobs and invest billions in Virginia landed on Gov. Ralph Northam’s watch, but it began during the term of Gov. Terry McAuliffe. And Republican leadership in the General Assembly was critical to making it happen. It is amazing what you can do if you do not care who gets the credit. And building trust with major corporate partners over years is key.
The stated reason why Youngkin pulled the plug on Ford’s proposal involved the automaker’s choice of Contemporary Amperex Technology (CATL), a Chinese company that is the largest battery manufacturer in the world, as a partner in the enterprise. CATL would help run the operation, and the governor raised the specter of “Chinese communist intrusion” into our economy. It did not go unnoticed that just prior to Youngkin’s announcement, DeSantis issued yet another missive to strengthen his own anti-Chinese bona fides, this time unveiling a plan to preserve Florida farmland from the Red hordes across the Pacific.
As is the case with many big economic development projects, the Ford proposal had been under consideration for months. Ford is very aggressive in building out its infrastructure for battery production and electric vehicles (it now ranks just behind Tesla). The automaker has announced three battery plants, two in Kentucky and one in Tennessee, the later reputed to be the largest in its celebrated history.
The Virginia site seemed a good fit. Until it wasn’t! If Virginia had genuine concerns about the Chinese gaining control over battery technology (at present, they seem to be far ahead of us in this area), the administration could have insisted early on safeguards. Instead, it defaulted to policy by ideological soundbite, ironic for a governor who made millions working with Chinese companies while employed by the Carlyle Group.
Meanwhile, other Republican governors are embracing the EV revolution, building on the incentives embedded in the recent Inflation Reduction Act designed to restore manufacturing in America. Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, who recently recruited Hyundai, Rivian, SK Battery, and Qcells, all companies trying to build a new energy economy, has taken a practical approach. “I’m fulfilling my promise of creating good-paying jobs for our state,” Kemp said. Pointing to an F-150 Lightning, Ford’s electric pickup, he added, “You’re gonna have a lot of Republicans driving that truck.” And Ohio Governor Mike DeWine just celebrated a new Ford project that will bring $1.5 billion in capital and 1,800 new jobs to the Buckeye state.
The governor’s decision again illustrates how Virginians have become collateral damage in his efforts to become president. How do you turn down a project whose job numbers would replace all of those lost in Virginia’s coal industry during the entire last decade? And it certainly makes it more difficult for us to recapture the hard-earned label as the Best State for Business, a distinction the commonwealth held during Democratic and Republican administrations and recently lost on his watch. One thing is clear: the Ford project will land somewhere, and we have lost both substantial opportunity and credibility in the process.
David J. Toscano is a Charlottesville resident and former Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He is the author of “Fighting Political Gridlock: How States Shape Our Nation and Our Lives,” University of Virginia Press, 2021, and “Bellwether: Virginia’s Political Transformation, 2006-2020,” Hamilton Books, 2022.