Make no mistake: Alabama is among the states hopeful that the heralded Japanese automaker can rapidly fix its growing cache of recalled cars, trucks and SUVs and, likewise, repair the public-relations damage.
The reason’s simple — yet tinged in modern-day politics. Toyota operates a plant in Huntsville that makes V6 and V8 truck engines. And anything that hurts Toyota’s need to build new vehicles can hurt Alabamians whose household income depends on a Toyota paycheck.
In north Alabama, this isn’t small potatoes. Last summer, Toyota announced an expansion of its Huntsville engine plant that would produce 240 new jobs and push the number of Alabamians on the plant payroll to more than 1,000.
That’s one of the main reasons why Riley joined three other governors — Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Kentucky’s Steve Beshear — to write a letter last week to Congress.
The other reason? Think bailout.
In the letter, Riley and friends urged lawmakers to be fair in their upcoming congressional hearings with Toyota brass. Still-boiling feelings over the federal government’s bailout of U.S. automakers Chrysler and General Motors were front and center in the governors’ words.
“Toyota must put the safety of drivers first and foremost,” Kentucky’s Beshear said. “However, they deserve a level and reasonable response from the federal government — one that is not tainted by the federal government’s financial interest in some of Toyota’s competitors.”
Mark this as a prominent, and expected, political byproduct of Washington’s decision to give billions to the struggling U.S. automakers.
The governors haven’t erred by calling for fair treatment in Congress for Toyota representatives. They have their states’ interests to protect, and Toyota has been a worthy employer at its U.S.-based plants for decades. Their reasons may be political, but they are sound.
Nevertheless, Toyota faces a tough — though possible — rehabilitation. Monday’s news that the government has now received 34 alleged death cases linked to Toyota malfunctions since 2000 is likely to make the upcoming congressional hearings even testier.
A healthy, rejuvenated Toyota would be good news for Alabama. And knowing Riley as we do, it’s not surprising to see him affix his name to such a prominent and controversial topic.