A Harley-riding economist has taken what may be the toughest job on President Obama’s auto task force - helping to rebuild the communities that will likely be devastated by the industry’s downsizing.
Obama likened the mission of Edward B. Montgomery, the new Director of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, to someone who helps towns recover after a hurricane or other natural disaster.
The former deputy labor secretary, who traveled to Michigan today to meet with Gov. Jennifer Granholm, has the broad mission of working with the cities hardest hit by the restructurings and possible bankruptcies of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler.
The challenge is huge. Since the economic downturn began, the auto industry has shed more than 400,000 jobs at automakers, suppliers and dealers, Obama said. And more cuts are inevitable.
Obama said that Montgomery would help “create new manufacturing jobs and new businesses where they’re needed most - in your communities. And he will also lead an effort to identify new initiatives we may need to help support your communities going forward.”
As a labor economist, Montgomery’s focus has been on people, rather than on systems. According to his profile on the Website of the University of Maryland, where he is dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences:
Dr. Montgomery has published numerous papers and articles on local economic development, youth unemployment, cross national comparisons of labor market performance, savings and pension policy, Medicaid and Social Security, labor unions and workplace smoking regulations.
“He’s not the sort of economist who views these as abstract problems,” Robert Schwab, associate dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, told the Washington Post. “This is a field that’s important because it plays such a key role in everyone’s life - not just an interesting abstraction. That permeates all of Ed’s research.”
With unemployment in Michigan already at 12 percent and rising, “to pull this off you’d need a lot of skills,” Schwab said. “You’d best be able to listen, you’d best be able to make hard choices.”
Schwab believes that Montgomery has those skills. “He’s a real problem solver, terrific at bringing people together who are at loggerheads, and working to get a solution.”
But others were less impressed by Montgomery’s credentials.
“I’m sure they didn’t mean this announcement to sound as condescending as it does: that the federal government is going to send an academic to help us poor provincials devise approaches” for recovery, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels told the Wall Street Journal.
Daniels, a Republican, said Indiana already “has a very clearly articulated economic strategy.”
An administration official said the intention was simply “to have a high-level advocate who can really push and coordinate people to assure that things are being used as aggressively as possible.”
Montgomery, who drives a 2000 Lincoln Town Car, received a doctorate in economics from Harvard University in 1982. He began his career as a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and worked for the Labor Department during the Clinton administration, rising to second in command before returning to academia at Maryland. Months after joining the department, he took part in negotiations that helped end the 10-day Teamsters strike.
He became dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, the university’s largest college, in 2003. After Obama’s election, he headed his Labor Department transition team, and joined the Treasury Department’s auto task force last month.
Because of Montgomery’s ties to the Obama administration and his broad mandate as director of recovery, some are already speculating that he will be a de facto car czar.
Charles Craver, a labor relations expert at George Washington University, told the Baltimore Sun that he expects Montgomery to wield considerable influence.
“I have the sense he’s going to have to oversee the restructuring of the companies,” Craver said.