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Ford's chief lobbyist retiring: 'We represent families across America'

Ford's chief lobbyist retiring: 'We represent families across America'
© Courtesy Ford Motor Company

After more than three decades lobbying for the auto industry, Curt Magleby is retiring from Ford at the end of a tumultuous year, though he says he's particularly proud of how the company has responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The auto industry’s always at the cutting edge of change in turmoil,” Magleby said in a recent interview with The Hill. “COVID brings a very different angle.”

Magleby, Ford’s vice president of U.S. government relations until Dec. 31, said that the pandemic allowed for Ford to broaden its brand and, as a result, his scope as a lobbyist. The automaker assembled 50,000 ventilators to help with response efforts and announced in September it would donate 100 million masks through 2021.

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“We’re donating 100 million masks because it’s a real opportunity to have an impact,” he said. “As an effective lobbyist, you have to explain that you’re not representing a company — like for Ford, we represent families across America, suppliers, dealers in every state. We represent graduate students that hope to engage in engineering, innovation.”

Magleby began working for Ford in 1988. He had just received his master’s in business and started working in finance in the electronics division at the company’s Rawsonville, Mich., plant, where he quickly learned about the importance of personally representing the brand.

“I still remember I had my Audi 4000 I had bought in California,” he said. “As a new MBA, you get there early, you park in front and you try to do all the things right. I remember, it was about like day three, and one of my colleagues came up and said, ‘Curt, you might want to park the car in the other parking lot.’ ”

He was eventually promoted to be Ford's top lobbyist in 2011, though unlike many in government relations, he never worked in partisan politics, a subject that came up during a meeting that year with the president of the United Auto Workers.

“He said, ‘I just want to know one thing, are you a Democrat or a Republican?’ It did sort of throw me off, I have to admit. I simply said, ‘I’m a manufacturing guy,’ ” Magleby said.

The Ford approach, he said, is to work together across the aisle on big issues.

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“That’s what I think for effective lobbying you need to do — understand the politics of both sides but you look for that common ground,” he said.

It allows him to work with lawmakers from both sides on the future of the auto industry, most notably autonomous vehicles. Ford is launching its self-driving vehicle business in 2022 after postponing the move a year due to the coronavirus.

Companies have pushed for federal legislation to regulate self-driving cars, saying that the lack of action from Congress will lead to a complicated state-by-state framework. Relying on state laws for autonomous vehicles could also mean the U.S. falls behind in the international race to launch the next-generation cars.

“The technology is outpacing the ability of people to put policies around it and create certainty around it. There’s no certainty around autonomous vehicle deployment — there should be,” Magleby said.

He also said that transitioning to green vehicles has its benefits to consumers and society but needs to be done in an affordable and competitive way.

“Our role in advocacy is to make sure people understand that there’s a balance. We could electrify everything right now but it’s just going to cost consumers and be unaffordable for them. So how do we do it and how do we create that cycle of moving forward technologies that consumers have access to,” he said.

A major focus of his work for the last three decades has been to get policymakers to understand the importance of manufacturing in America "because it can bring a lot of technologies."

"It used to be defined as manufacturing was the Rust Belt. No, manufacturing is technology, is innovation, it’s the future of jobs,” Magleby said.

Every time he flies to Washington from Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., he says he looks down and notes the preponderance of manufacturing sites across the country.

“That’s what drives America. That’s the jobs, the communities, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile. That’s where politics needs to go, is to really focus on the issue. We’ve sort of dumbed down into a bickering mode at times,” he said.

Magleby is moving to Utah full time after his retirement and is ready for the next chapter in his life, whatever that may look like.

For the next generation of lobbyists, his advice is to fully identify your company’s values and "what you stand for at the core" before trying to convey them to lawmakers.

"Ford’s an easy one because we have a long legacy we can draw on. We stand for strengthening communities across America,” he said.

“You can represent the company’s issues, and those will come and go but ultimately, you’re representing constituents. Real people, real families, real futures. If you can put everything in those terms, then you can be a proud lobbyist,” Magleby said.