Gabe Nelson
Gabe Nelson
Silicon Valley, Tesla, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Mitsubishi

Toyota's image enhancement for Texas, and its governor

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Quick: Name Texas’ two most iconic industries.

Oil and cattle, right? I know it’s not a fair representation, but preconceptions are hard to shake.

Now name California’s two most iconic industries.

Bet you answered movies and computers. California has oil refineries and agriculture too, but they can’t even begin to compete with Hollywood and Silicon Valley in the public imagination.

This glamour gap explains why luring substantially all of Toyota’s U.S. sales, marketing, manufacturing and engineering operations from Southern California was such a big deal for the Lone Star State. For all its recent job growth, Texas needs a few more global companies like Toyota with high-tech credentials to show that its business climate is friendly to more than just ranchers and oil barons.

Being the American home of Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s largest car company and the seller of the eco-friendly Prius, makes that point better than advertising ever could.

Winning the Toyota operation is also great news for Texas’ ambitious Republican governor, Rick Perry, who took a failed shot at the White House in 2012 and could use his low-tax, business-friendly bona fides to propel a second run in 2016.

Perry is taking aim at another California auto company: Tesla Motors. Texas is one of the four finalists as a site for the electric-car maker’s proposed “gigafactory,” a $5 billion battery plant that would employ 6,500 people.

The talks are moving forward. Last month the San Antonio Express-News reported that on March 26, two Tesla execs visited San Antonio to meet with Mayor Julian Castro and other high-ranking local officials. (Hat tip to Jalopnik reporter Patrick George, a native Texan, for calling this to my attention.)

Imagine if Texas wins the Tesla sweepstakes. “High-tech, environmentally friendly companies like Toyota and Tesla are choosing Texas over California because our business climate was better,” a 2016 campaign ad might say. “My name is Rick Perry, and if you elect me president, I’ll do that for all of America.”

Last year the governor lent his voice to a radio spot in California to make that point, and California Gov. Jerry Brown wasn’t happy about it. “It’s not a serious story, guys ... you take a little radio ad, all you guys run like lapdogs to report it,” ABC News quoted Brown as telling reporters in February 2013. “It’s not a burp, it’s barely a fart.”

Today’s news must have Brown feeling a little indigestion. It can’t be easy for him to stomach the fact that the seller of California’s best selling car, the Prius hybrid, is living out its marketing motto: “Let’s Go Places.”

At least he still has Hollywood.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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