Don Beyer's term as chairman of the American International Automobile Dealers Association was short but eventful. Beyer took the reins of the import-brand dealers' group last May, when then-Chairman Don Hicks announced that AIADA was killing its controversial political action committee and that he was stepping down.
Beyer, 56, a Volvo, Land Rover and Subaru dealer in northern Virginia, was to have been chairman in 2007. Instead, he moved up and served the balance of last year. The main event of Beyer's tenure was the appointment of a new president: Cody Lusk, a former AIADA lobbyist and congressional chief of staff. Lusk replaced Marianne McInerney, who resigned last March amid the PAC controversy.
As a Democratic activist -- a relative rarity among dealers -- Beyer had expected to try to help elect former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner president in 2008. But Warner left the race last October, despite successful fundraising led by Beyer. Now, Beyer says, "I don't have a second choice."
Beyer, a former lieutenant governor of Virginia, says he intends to keep lobbying on free trade, estate-tax changes and other AIADA priorities. He discussed these and other issues last month with Washington reporter Harry Stoffer.
Despite all the bluster from newly empowered Democrats in Congress, is there really much they could do to hurt your members, given the global economy?
There will be more threat, I hope, than reality. We see the effects, most of them positive, of free trade in every aspect of our daily life. And we're there just to champion it and to make sure we keep moving forward, and especially that we keep moving forward with respect to the international-nameplate automobile industry.
I do think there will be a push-back in the Congress, certainly in the White House and in society in general, to try to go back to a world where there are a lot of protectionist barriers. First of all, the most important thing, it won't work. I think we will have editorialists from the entire political spectrum writing that raising barriers, building walls, only impoverishes the world. And it doesn't fix the economic problems of any of the disadvantaged communities in America.
What we have to do, I think, as public-policy leaders, is encourage retraining and - first and foremost, whatever the public-policy initiatives are - to help those areas that are hit hardest by globalization recover and become competitive in this new world, as opposed to pretending we can go back, because we can't.
We (at AIADA) have to be the champion for free trade, because there isn't anybody else who's going to be it right now.
Besides the political action committee controversy, were there other things to repair at AIADA, more healing to be done?
Most of the healing was done by the time I got here. The good news, as it happens in many families, you sometimes have the fight at the dinner table, and you're closer at the end than you were at the beginning.
I think our relationship with AFIT-PAC (the independent political action committee called Automotive Free International Trade-PAC), with Mary Hanagan (AFIT-PAC's director), with AIAM (the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers), is much better than it was a year ago, before the November (2005) meeting to do a PAC within AIADA.
It wasn't just that we went back and went forward. I think we came much farther forward than where we started, and we're stronger and healthier because of it. Would it have happened anyway? Maybe. We all realized we were fighting for exactly the same thing. We're in the same industry. The friendships and relationship go back, in many cases, 30 years, and we just all need to be on the same page. And I think we are.
What Cody (Lusk) has brought is fresh life to the staff of the association itself. People really enjoy working for him. There is a better sense of morale, spirit and community within AIADA than I've seen in a long time.
I'm very encouraged with the rebound of the association over the last year. We're beautifully poised for great effectiveness in the years to come.
The immediate past chairman traditionally has a leadership role in AIADA. What do you intend to do?
To be as supportive as I can of the agenda, moving forward. Clearly, what we've read the last couple of weeks is the sense that the new Congress is not going to be nearly as supportive of free-trade agreements or the renewal of fast-track (negotiating) authority (for the White House). So we've got to be out there as a counterbalance to that.
We need new free-trade agreements - with Korea, to finish the one with Thailand, and all the others that are out there. And do our best to make sure that the president and the president who succeeds him still have fast-track authority.
I personally am optimistic - and maybe I'm wrong - that despite having a Democratic House and Senate, we in fact may be closer to death-tax reform than we were before.
It may well be, especially with (U.S. Rep.) Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) as head of (the House) Ways and Means (Committee), who's been a death-tax reform advocate going way back.
Democrats may not lean as far as traditional Republicans, who want no estate tax. But we may nevertheless get much higher limits and much lower rates - which will be, if not perfect, at least way ahead of where we are today, where we go back to (a) 55 percent tax rate in 2011. That would be good for the dealer body as a whole and our families and our ability to pass our businesses on to our children. We'll be very involved in that.
You're good at fundraising. Do you enjoy it?
Yeah. I believe that the world works by invitation. For me, selling a car, the most important thing is listening, trying to figure out what do (customers) need, what do they want, what's going to meet their family's needs, their personal aspirations. And then saying, what do I have that does that?
With politics, it's always about, what do you care about? And how does the candidate I represent answer the things that you really care about? If there is a match, you invite people to either buy the car or participate in the process.
You may e-mail Harry Stoffer at [email protected]