WASHINGTON -- Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones on Tuesday said if Republican Roy Moore wins next week's special election in Alabama, the state's chance to lure a major new auto assembly plant could be jeopardized.
Moore, endorsed by President Donald Trump, has been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls while in his 30s.
"Roy Moore in the U.S. Senate would be a disaster for business in Alabama," Jones, a former federal prosecutor, said at a rally in Birmingham, Ala.
Alabama is competing with other states for a $1.6 billion Toyota-Mazda factory that is expected to build a new crossover for Mazda and Corolla cars for Toyota. Bloomberg has reported that Alabama and North Carolina are the two finalists for the joint facility, expected to employ 4,000 people at full production.
Hotbed of manufacturing
Alabama has become a hotbed for auto manufacturing, hosting plants for Honda Motor Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and Mercedes-Benz. The state recently attracted European aircraft manufacturer Airbus to build jetliners in Mobile, and has benefited from growth of the technology hub in Huntsville, maritime and freight infrastructure, and other industries. Alabama's advantages include skilled labor, low taxes, low cost of living, transportation infrastructure and willingness to provide state incentives.
"When Toyota is trying to decide whether to expand their operation here they are going to want to know what our state is doing to build a workforce that can operate their facilities," Jones told the audience. "But a serious question you have to ask yourself is this, does the idea of Sen. Roy Moore make it more or less likely that Toyota, or anyone else, will see Alabama's image in such a negative way that they would cross Alabama off their list and move onto another state."
Toyota plans to announce its site selection in early 2018.
"An investment like this is for the long term, spanning several decades, and is based on factors such as infrastructure, a high-quality workforce, and quality of life for team members," Toyota North America said in an email to Automotive News.
Moore campaign officials did not respond to a voicemail left on a number provided by the Alabama Republican Party.
Moore was controversial even before the recent allegations of sexual misbehavior. He was twice ousted as state Supreme Court chief justice -- first for refusing to obey federal and state court orders to remove a stone monument of the Ten Commandments from the court and then for telling probate judges in 2016 not to follow the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling legalizing gay marriage.
He is a strident opponent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, has repeatedly disparaged Islam and has said that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress.
Manufacturers balance a multitude of factors when making a site selection and their long-range horizons usually mute immediate considerations, but social issues can play a role in the final decision, Mark Sweeney, senior principal at McCallum Sweeney Consulting, said.
"You have a manufacturer in this case that has a consumer product and invests millions in marketing their image, so that's where a short-term controversy can gain a lot of weight," he said.
Many consumer-facing companies made location decisions in recent years based in part on how states handled Confederate flag controversies, the site selection expert noted.
North Carolina's economy lost hundreds of millions of dollars to a widespread business boycott after the Legislature in 2015 regulated bathroom use for transgender people. Sports leagues and businesses, including Deutsche Bank and PayPal, canceled sporting events, concerts and expansion plans in the state because they viewed the law as discriminatory.
In March, the legislature rescinded the so-called bathroom bill, which has helped restore its reputation within business circles even though critics say it still limits localities from protecting transgender rights.
Many corporations say they want to locate facilities in cities where diversity is encouraged because the shortage of skilled workers means they need to hire people from all backgrounds and identities.
McSweeney, whose company has previously been involved in automotive location decisions, said, "I would expect that this is being discussed by the Toyota-Mazda team. What we don't know, is how much weight these companies are putting on those [social] factors. But if they are very high profile then the risk to the company image comes into play."