WASHINGTON - Automotive industry newcomer Jo Cooper, preparing herself for the hot seat atop the new, untested Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, has some personal rules for success.
She says she will answer 'I don't know' when that is the case, and she prefers to deal with regulatory agencies head-on instead of using the favorite Washington back-door tactic of getting Congress to eliminate their funding.
The cut-off-their-money approach is exactly what some of Cooper's new employers, the former Big 3, have used for the past four years. They have gotten riders attached to federal spending bills to keep the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from raising the federal fuel economy standards.
Cooper, in a wide-ranging interview about her upcoming role as the first president of the newly formed, nine-member, multinational alliance, was ready with another rule that supersedes the others: 'You do what you need to do to represent your industry and ensure their interests are adequately protected.'
A LOT TO LEARN
Cooper said she has a lot to learn about the auto industry, including corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE. But she thinks being a newcomer can be a major asset. It will enable her to get industry veterans to reconsider timeworn ways of doing things.
'It gives you an ability to ask an awful lot of questions,' said Cooper, whose most recent experience was with the forest products and paper industries. 'Sometimes the very obvious questions are the ones that give you pause.'
As a woman in the male-dominated auto industry, Cooper does not regard herself as a breaker of glass ceilings or a trailblazer. 'Once you ask a couple of questions and get into the substance of an issue, then you're person-to-person, and it (gender) doesn't seem to make a huge difference,' she said.
Cooper said she thinks she was chosen because of her range of experience in public policy, communications, legislation and trade association management - and because 'I am the best person for the job.'
A 53-year-old North Carolina native, Cooper started her career in her home state at the National Center for Air Pollution Control, a predecessor to the EPA, which was created in 1970.
She came to Washington in 1978 and has worked in and around the federal government ever since. Cooper said she has tended to move into positions with organizations undergoing change, restructuring or crisis.
Her assignments have included working for former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tenn., and serving as assistant administrator of the EPA under William Ruckelshaus starting in 1983. She was part of the team called on by the Reagan administration to get the agency back on track after the tumultuous tenure of Administrator Anne Gorsuch.
Asked whether she is an environmentalist, Cooper said she prefers to call herself 'an environmental pragmatist' - one who wants to improve the environment but is willing to look at alternative ways of reaching goals and is conscious of economic implications.
As vice president of the American Forest and Paper Association for the past seven years, Cooper said one of her biggest assignments was to unite the pulp and paper industries in countering EPA proposals for new water and air regulations.
It is no coincidence that the first issue with which the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is dealing, even before Cooper is on board, is EPA's plan for new car and truck tailpipe emission standards.
Ford Motor Co. Vice Chairman Peter Pestillo, chairman of the alliance, said upon Cooper's selection: 'We are in effect reinventing the trade association concept, forging a unique global alliance of manufacturers who share common concerns and positions on two critical issues: vehicle safety and environmental protection. Jo Cooper is the perfect leader to help us guide the organization in this new paradigm.'
She is scheduled to become alliance president April 5.
Member companies are Ford, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., Nissan North America Inc. and Volkswagen of America Inc. Associate members are Mazda North American Operations, BMW of North America Inc. and Volvo Cars of North America Inc.
They formed the alliance after the former Big 3 disbanded the American Automobile Manufacturers Association in the wake of the merger of Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz AG.