By Michael D. Shear and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 8, 2008
WILMINGTON, Ohio, Aug. 7 -- Sen. John McCain promised Thursday to call for a congressional hearing and Justice Department review into the potential loss of some 8,000 jobs in this Ohio town as his presidential campaign once again faced uncomfortable questions about its ties to Washington lobbyists.
McCain's promise of quick action on plans by DHL Express to move its shipping operations away from an air park here came at an emotional meeting with workers and civic leaders, some of whom were not satisfied with the Republican's response to a question from a company employee at a town hall meeting a month ago.
It also came after a concerted effort by Democrats to highlight McCain's role in a congressional deal that brought DHL to Wilmington in the first place, and the former work of his campaign manager, Rick Davis, as a lobbyist for the company and its German owner, Deutsche Post World Net.
Mindful of the state's place on the electoral map and the need to demonstrate empathy about the economy, McCain told about two dozen company employees and civic leaders he would do everything possible to stop the job losses. He said he will urge the German owners of DHL to visit with residents of Wilmington.
But he also told them to prepare for the worst.
"I don't know if all of this will work. I have to say that. I have to give you straight talk. I do," he said. "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."
Mary Houghtaling, the employee who questioned McCain about the issue last month, responded: "My straight talk would be, 'Please don't let this foreign company ruin our part of the world. Please give us a reason to once again believe in promises and trust.' " The audience applauded.
The tearful Houghtaling seemed to appreciate McCain's attention, saying she looked forward to him landing Air Force One at the air park.
The issue shows how one town's economic crisis in a state crucial to the November elections can acquire an outsize role in the nation's political debate. But it has special resonance because of the involvement of McCain and campaign manager Davis.
Davis lobbied for DHL after its proposed acquisition of Airborne Express -- which had its hub in Wilmington -- ran into trouble in Congress. The Washington Post reported this year that Davis and his firm, Davis Manafort, were paid $185,000 for their work on the DHL-Airborne Express issue in 2003. The firm was paid an additional $405,000 by Deutsche Post for other work in 2004 and 2005.
Some members of Congress, as well as DHL's U.S.-based competitors FedEx and United Parcel Service, objected to a subsidiary of a foreign company controlling a segment of air commerce in the United States.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) added a provision to a $79 billion Iraq war spending bill that would have prohibited any money from being used to pay a foreign express cargo carrier, which would have hurt the planned DHL takeover of Airborne.
With Davis lobbying on DHL's behalf, McCain, then chairman of the Senate commerce committee, stepped in, arguing that spending bills should not be used to make "a fundamental policy change" such as Stevens's provision. Congress scaled back the provision to ensure that the DHL-Airborne deal could go through.
The outcome was welcomed in Ohio at the time. By October of 2003, nearly 100 planes from 120 airports were converging on the Wilmington air park each night, dropping off an average of 2.98 million pounds of mail.
But the fragility of the arrangement was exposed in May when DHL announced it would move its shipping operations from Wilmington to rival UPS's operations in Louisville, a decision that has been estimated to cost the town about 8,000 jobs.
A Cleveland Plain-Dealer article about Davis's 2003 lobbying efforts has energized Democrats. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat and strong supporter of Sen. Barack Obama, called on McCain and Davis to use their connections to stop DHL from abandoning the airport.
"I'm personally calling on John McCain to send Rick Davis to Germany to use his considerable clout with DHL . . . to help save these 8,200 jobs in southwest Ohio," Brown said.
McCain said on Thursday he thought Deutsche Post executives should "come here to Wilmington and come here to Ohio and explain the reasons and rationale for their decision." He said he also would "fully support a federal antitrust review" of DHL's decision to contract with its rival, though "I do not prejudge its disposition."
While McCain received a mostly warm reception at the meeting, the issue brought unwelcome attention to McCain's close ties to lobbyists, especially those in senior positions in his campaign.
Charles Black, one of McCain's senior advisers, was a top Washington lobbyist who represented domestic corporations, foreign leaders and other organizations until resigning from the business this year. Davis, who quit his firm to work for McCain, has lobbied Congress on behalf of telecommunications companies and other industries as well as representing foreign interests.
In May, Davis issued an edict declaring that the campaign would employ no active lobbyists in paid positions and would require strict disclosure from volunteers. The result was a wave of departures from his campaign as the lobbying backgrounds of several employees became public.
Barnes reported from Washington. Staff writer Jonathan Weisman in Washington contributed to this report.