Janesville: Back in the crossfire that is 2012 politics

Automotive News | August 30, 2012 - 3:56 pm EST

I was there on that snowy day in Janesville, Wis. It was 18 degrees in the General Motors plant's parking lot, where I was, while workers inside were facing the cold reality of unemployment as the last Chevrolet Tahoe rolled down the line on Dec. 23, 2008.

I was the only reporter in the Janesville Assembly parking lot as it emptied out that Tuesday, and I remember thinking to myself, "I'm glad I'm here, because four years from now, someone from this town might be a vice-presidential candidate and the closure of this plant is going to be a campaign issue."

Actually, that's a lie, or what a politician might call "something you say."

I was really thinking, "Wow, is it freezing out here." Then: "Here comes a security guard -- better hide."

This was back when a lot of my job involved hiding from security patrols in auto plant parking lots. The more GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler closed plants around the country, the more I flew around the country and hid from security while waiting to interview workers at a shift change.

But while most of those depressing assignments blend together as I think back, that Tuesday in Janesville remains absolutely clear in my mind.

So does the Friday before that, when I visited a plant that Chrysler was shutting down in Delaware and got banned from a T.G.I. Friday's on the orders of someone named, appropriately enough, Jimmy Cabanban. But that's another story.

What's also clear is that George W. Bush was still president when the end came for Janesville Assembly. Barack Obama wasn't even the Democratic presidential nominee yet when GM announced it would close. (Aside: About 100 workers at the plant continued building trucks for Isuzu until April 2009, but that was just to fulfill the end of a contract and had nothing to do with GM.)

Yet Paul Ryan has argued -- twice now, including in a speech Wednesday at the Republican National Convention -- that Obama broke his promise to keep GM's plant open in Janesville, which is Ryan's hometown.

So what gives?

Democrats say Ryan's statement is misleading and that Obama never promised to keep the nearly century-old plant open, nor could he have saved it unless he can travel through time. (Aside No. 2: If anyone reading this really can travel through time, please help me go to a time when it's not an election year.)

PolitiFact, which fact-checks public officials, labeled Ryan's attack false. Fox News and The Washington Post also called Ryan's comments deceptive.

For evidence, Ryan and other Republicans point to these words from Obama, to the people of Janesville during a campaign stop in early 2008, as reported by the Janesville Gazette: "I believe that if our government is there to support you and give you the assistance you need to retool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another 100 years."

Basically, Ryan is upset that GM abandoned the town, while Obama points to the revival that GM and Chrysler are experiencing as proof that the government's intervention succeeded. (Aside No. 3: Technically, Janesville Assembly is not permanently closed but rather on "standby," which basically means "closed for now, but don't hold your breath.")

The disconnect here is that this is a matter of perspective. If you live anywhere near Detroit, or work at the plant GM is expanding in Wentzville, Mo., or have a Chevy dealership in Boise, Idaho, you might have one opinion about how the government's intervention in the auto industry has worked out.

But if you live in Moraine, Ohio, or Newark, Del., or Janesville, or your family's income depended on any of the plants where I dodged security in 2008, headlines about GM's multibillion-dollar profits or Chrysler's surging sales ring hollow.

So while it's understandable why a guy from Janesville would be upset, whether he owns the tiny bar hilariously surrounded on three sides by the sprawling plant's parking lot or is running to be vice president, it's also clear that looking at Janesville in isolation is not enough to judge the success of the auto industry bailout.

GM could have kept Janesville open, making Paul Ryan happier but people somewhere else angry instead. I found a listing in Wentzville for a Paul Ryan, and I'm guessing he would not have liked it if GM had shut that plant down rather than Janesville. The reality was that GM needed to close many factories to help save the rest, and Janesville was unlucky enough to get picked.

As luck would have it, when an election year rolled around, a guy from Janesville got picked, too.

Nick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive NewsNick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive News

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