Toyota's Kentucky presence puts lawmakers on defensive

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress from Kentucky, where Toyota employs thousands of workers, strongly defended the automaker as hearings into the company's safety problems continued Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

The Kentucky lawmakers, as well as those running for Congress this year, criticized the proceedings in the House of Representatives in the wake of Toyota's massive recall and increased federal scrutiny following widespread consumer complaints about acceleration problems.

Rep. Ben Chandler, a Democrat whose district includes Toyota's largest assembly plant in North America, defended the company's 7,000 workers in Georgetown, Ky.

"Just last week, I spent the afternoon at the Georgetown plant meeting with a large group of Toyota employees, the people making the actual repairs, and the managers to hear their thoughts and concerns about the recall," Chandler said.

"The people who work there are my friends and neighbors, and I am proud of the work they do. I'll do what I can to advocate for Georgetown's Toyota employees, and I look forward to Toyota's strong presence in Central Kentucky far into the future."

Republican Andy Barr, who is seeking Chandler's seat, was highly critical of Chandler and other Democrats in Congress, although some Republicans had harsh words for Toyota as well. Florida Rep. John Mica called the company's actions "absolutely appalling."

"While Chandler sits idly by, thousands of jobs in our district are being threatened by the Democrats' attacks," said Barr, a Lexington attorney.

Mike Templeman, another Republican who's making a run for Chandler's seat, criticized "rabid congressional politicians who smell blood," the government's rescue of General Motors and lawmakers with ties to organized labor. Toyota's Georgetown operations are non-union.

"The hearings today are exactly what's wrong with Washington. You have a room full of vultures in the pocket of the United Auto Workers and part owner in a direct competitor of Georgetown's Toyota. It seems Congress has declared war on Kentucky workers," said Templeman, a retired businessman and a former Democrat.

Candidates to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Jim Bunning took similar stands.

Republican Rand Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon, said "Toyota's legitimate problems should be handled in negotiations with their customers. I do not support the grandstanding of the Obama administration."

His main Republican rival, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, said "the top priority is to protect consumers. Let's make sure the safety inspectors at the Department of Transportation have the tools they need to get ahead of these problems, but let's not make this a media circus driven by grandstanding politicians looking for another industry to ruin, because good Kentucky jobs should not be put at risk to feed the trial lawyer greed."

Attorney General Jack Conway, seeking the Democratic Senate nomination, said: "Toyota and its suppliers provide good-paying jobs for thousands of hard-working employees in the Commonwealth. Additionally, thousands of our families drive Toyota vehicles. Kentucky needs Toyota to acknowledge and fix any mistakes that were made expeditiously in the interest of car owners and Kentucky workers."

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell noted that Ford and General Motors also have plants in Kentucky, making it the nation's third largest auto producer behind Michigan and Ohio.

"Toyota is an important economic engine to the Commonwealth, employing thousands of hard-working Kentuckians," said Robert Steurer, the spokesman.

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