John McCain went on the offensive Thursday in a key battleground state, hoping to blunt criticism that he was indirectly responsible for the possible loss of more than 8,000 jobs in Wilmington, Ohio.
“I can’t assure you that this train wreck isn’t going to happen but I will do everything in my power to see that we avert it,” said McCain in a meeting with over two dozen Wilmington business owners, local officials, and community organizers.
Democrats are trying to pin the economic loss squarely on the McCain campaign, stressing ties between DHL, a global package delivery company, and his campaign manager, Rick Davis.
Five years ago, Davis lobbied Congress to accept a plan by German-owned DHL to buy Wilmington, Ohio-based Airborne Express.
Now, DHL wants to route its packages through Louisville, Ky., a move that would cost southwest Ohio thousands of much-needed jobs.
In Wilmington on Thursday, McCain promised to hold congressional hearings and send a letter to the CEO of DHL’s parent company, Deutsche Post AG, asking him to meet with the affected workers.
“I’m deeply troubled by the specter of job loss confronting the town of Wilmington and this entire area, nine counties,” said McCain. “My concerns are being reinforced in my meeting today with those facing the most personal consequences.”
Jobs are a critical issue in economically-struggling Ohio, a swing state that awarded George W. Bush the 2004 election. Wilmington, located in the southwest part of the state, is traditionally a Republican stronghold.
Although Davis ended his representation of DHL in 2005, Democrats see the connection as a prime opportunity to paint the presumptive Republican nominee as beholden to lobbyists and big corporations.
On Wednesday, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown called on McCain and Davis to use their influence to encourage DHL to keep the jobs in Ohio.
"Rick Davis earned hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying for DHL," Brown said on Wednesday. "Now it's time to see if he and John McCain will use their considerable clout to lobby for Ohio families."
Since the deal was announced in May, Ohio lawmakers have asked DHL, the White House, and other American and German government officials to help stop the move.
On Wednesday, a Cleveland Plain Dealer story reported that Davis and a partner earned nearly $600,000 lobbying the Senate to accept DHL’s proposal to buy Airborne Express for $1.05 billion.
Some in Congress feared that allowing a foreign-owned company manage air commerce could threaten national security. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, tried to insert language prohibiting a foreign-owned carrier from flying military equipment or troops.
McCain, then chairman of the Commerce Committee, objected, arguing that Congress should not limit the Pentagon’s choices. The deal went through, and initially boosted the economy in the region, particularly after DHL moved its air freight operation from Kentucky to Wilmington in 2005.
In May, DHL announced that it planned to ship its packages on the planes of rival United Parcel Service, which flies out of Louisville. The change would render the Wilmington airport and its employees unnecessary.
When Mary Houghtaling, president of the Community Care Hospice in Wilmington, tearfully asked about the job losses at an event in Portsmouth, Ohio about a month ago, McCain said he doubted that he could stop the company from moving.
“I've got to look you in the eye and give you some straight talk,” he said. “I don't know if I can stop it or not.”
After their first meeting, Houghtaling followed-up with McCain’s offices, urging the Arizona senator to come to Wilmington.
At the town hall, Houghtaling begged McCain to do everything he could to save the jobs.
“There are people in my community and beyond that didn’t like the answer you gave me and think you are only here today because it was a weak answer and you felt political pressure to be here,” she said.
“You being here and keeping a promise is what will help build our trust again.”
McCain said that Houghtaling had altered his perception of the situation.
‘I have to give you straight talk Mary,” he said. “I never knew it in the way that you described it to me in the human terms.”
In the 45-minute meeting, McCain told the community members that he would do everything he could to fight the job losses.
McCain said he supports a federal review of the case, characterizing the proposal as “anticompetitive.”
This week, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisc., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, asked the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission to review the deal for antitrust concerns.
But McCain was careful not to overpromise.
After Wilmington Mayor David Raizk described the task force formed by the community to assess the move’s economic impact, McCain shot back with a loaded question.
“What are your contingencies?”
Raizk laughed nervously and explained the group was also exploring redevelopment opportunities.
“I can’t look you in the eye and say I’m sure we’re going to avert this,” McCain later said.
If all efforts fail, McCain argued that national emergency grant funding should be paired with displaced worker assistance and a retraining program to stem the economic pain.
“Please know that this has been very helpful to me but it’s also very heart-wrenching to me to hear you speak,” he said.
Although he might not be able to save the jobs, McCain’s tough talk won over at least one Wilmington voter.
“Sen. McCain, this is a very partisan thing to say but I can’t wait ‘til you land Air Force One out there,” said Houghtaling, ending the meeting.