Kentuckians defend Toyota, blast congressional hearings

habdullah@mcclatchydc.comFebruary 25, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Members of Kentucky's congressional delegation and candidates seeking election this year strongly defended Toyota on Wednesday — the second day of hearings focused on the company's handling of safety issues.

Some of the Kentucky candidates were highly critical of the U.S. House hearings in the wake of Toyota's massive recall and increased federal scrutiny following widespread consumer complaints about acceleration problems.

U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, whose 6th Congressional District includes Toyota's largest assembly plant in North America, defended workers at the Georgetown plant, which employs 7,000.

"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."

But Republican Andy Barr, who is seeking Chandler's seat, was highly critical of Chandler and other Democrats in Congress.

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

"Should Toyota take every step to fix their problems? Absolutely. Should the federal government, that owns General Motors, attack Toyota until they drive out every job? Absolutely not."

Mike Templeman, another Republican seeking the 6th District seat, criticized "rabid congressional politicians who smell blood."

"Toyota is a vital part to my district and my state. I stand behind them. They have been trustworthy to their workers and the communities they serve in Kentucky. I believe that we should judge people on how they correct mistakes — not before they correct them — and Toyota is no different," said Templeman, a former coal businessman.

"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."

Candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Jim Bunning took similar stands.

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

"Congress is once again interfering in the marketplace through hearings on Capitol Hill in order to score cheap political points. Their actions threaten to exacerbate Toyota's problems and muddy consumers' understanding without providing a single solution."

One of his opponents in the Republican primary, 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 nomination for Senate, 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."

The state's senior U.S. senator, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, noted that Ford and General Motors also have plants in Kentucky, the nation's third-largest auto producer.

"Like the Ford and GM plants in Kentucky, Toyota is an important economic engine to the commonwealth, employing thousands of hard-working Kentuckians," said Robert Steurer, a McConnell spokesman.

"Sen. McConnell wants to see the safety issues that have been raised addressed as quickly as possible, and he will continue to monitor developments as Congress continues to examine the situation."

McClatchy Newspapers reporter Bill Douglas contributed to this report.

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