As anger rose against imports, Washington lobbyist painted Nissan with stars and stripes
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1990
Role: Vice president for government affairs, Nissan North America
Key influence: Demonstrated how an import-brand automaker could stand up for its own interests in Washington and not appear "un-American"
Within hours of hearing the news, Nissan North America Inc. put up $30,000 for a replacement sled.
Tim MacCarthy, the company's vice president for government affairs, had engineered the quick rescue.
On one level, it was a simple act of corporate good will. On another, it symbolized MacCarthy's work for Nissan through the 1990s by sending this clear message to the country: We're Americans, too.
Nissan wasn't the only import-brand automaker that sought to avoid the foreigner label. But under MacCarthy, Nissan's campaigns were more comprehensive and visible.
Most memorably, U.S.-made Altima sedans painted in a bold stars-and-stripes motif were in newspaper and magazine ads and on signs — especially in the Washington area, where top policymakers live and work.
A dose of Irish
A Jesuit-educated Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, MacCarthy had worked for U.S. Sen. Edward Gurney, R-Fla., and the National Park Service before spending 15 years with the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association. The main members of that group were the Detroit 3.
So MacCarthy already was a familiar face on Capitol Hill and at government agencies when he joined Nissan in 1990 and began upgrading its Washington office. The move was both an opportunity and a risk for MacCarthy, says Mike Stanton, a lifelong friend and, at various times, a rival and an ally on lobbying issues.
“Honest and direct” was MacCarthy's approach, says Stanton, a longtime lobbyist for the Detroit 3 and now president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers. But sometimes MacCarthy displayed “a little bit of his Irish spirit,” Stanton says. “He liked to play with you, just to jab you every now and then.”
MacCarthy credits Nissan executives who hired him for realizing the importance of more active representation in Washington. The efforts included public affairs advertising, themed as “Investing in America,” as well as traditional face-to-face lobbying and acts of corporate good will.
MacCarthy also got involved in elections through the political action committee led by import-brand dealers, known now as the Automotive Free International Trade PAC.
“We were in the front of the parade. It took a while to catch on,” says MacCarthy, now 63, looking back at import-brand lobbying of the 1990s. But it worked.
A changed landscape
Along with other import-brand automakers and dealers, Nissan thwarted attempts to reshape fuel economy standards to be tougher on those companies that already had the most efficient fleets. The imports also beat back sharply higher tariffs on imported vehicles.
Eventually, even the Detroit 3 became more accepting.
In 1998 MacCarthy helped negotiate the creation of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a lobbying group that encompassed the Detroit 3 and six import-brand automakers.
So on one front, MacCarthy's quest to paint Nissan as all-American succeeded.
He kept working for the interests of import automakers, though. He retired in 2006 after six years as president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, which today includes Nissan, Toyota, Honda and 11 other automakers.