Livengood: James playing to economic fears in Macomb County by questioning EVs

St. Clair Shores — At a backyard barbeque four blocks from Lake St. Clair, John James Jr. stood before a small group of neighbors and launched into a campaign stump speech about the ills of electric vehicle batteries.

“These things are terrible for our planet,” said James, who runs a family-owned Detroit business that exports gas engines and powertrain parts for Ford Motor Co. and other automakers.

The Republican businessman from Farmington Hills, who is running for Congress in a mostly southern Macomb County district, used the coming age of battery electric vehicles to portray an uncertain future for the blue-collar suburbs of Detroit that have revolved economically around the internal combustion engine — and its many parts — for decades.

“There’s no plan to take care of the suppliers, the metal fabricators, the CNC machinist, the folks who rely so heavily on the automotive industry here,” said James, touching on the economic fears of what happens when electric motors replace their gas-guzzling ancestors, requiring hundreds of fewer parts.

In his bid to win an open seat in the 10th District against Democrat Carl Marlinga, a stalwart of Macomb County politics, James is trying something he didn’t often do in his two failed statewide campaigns for the U.S. Senate in 2018 and 2020: Talking to people on their home turf.

“I’ve done the rallies,” said James, a favorite of Republican activists, Fox News anchors and former President Donald Trump. “We’ve done the big things with the TV ads.”

During the Tuesday night barbeque in the backyard of James supporters David and Suzanne Deacon on a cul-de-sac near the Grosse Pointe Woods border, James said he was taking a page out of the campaign playbook of Detroit’s three-term Democratic mayor, Mike Duggan.

“He went out and he talked to people,” James said of Duggan, a White suburbanite who used house parties to build a coalition in an improbable 2013 victory in America’s largest Black majority city.

In this case, James is trying to become the first Black individual in Michigan history to represent a mostly White congressional district. In this case, the 10th District includes all of Macomb County south of M-59, Shelby Township, the southwest corner of Macomb Township, as well as Rochester and Rochester Hills in Oakland County. The swing district favors Republicans, though James’ campaign on Wednesday booked $2.4 million in television airtime for a fall TV blitz.

With voters zeroed in on inflation and economic uncertainty, James also is talking less about his military experience this time around. Instead, he is emphasizing more his understanding of the local economy that drives housing values, disposable income and consumer confidence in postwar suburbs dotted with brick ranch homes like St. Clair Shores.

“We’re building the Chinese middle class on the backs of ours,” said James, who slammed taxpayer subsidies of electric vehicles.

Marlinga responds

In a Wednesday phone interview, Marlinga said his 41-year-old Republican opponent is engaged in “outdated thinking” about the future economy for Macomb County and Michigan.

Marlinga, a former county prosecutor and judge, favors policies that boost Michigan’s ability to manufacture fast-charging EV chargers, parts for wind and tidal turbines to generate renewable energy, and geothermal heat pumps for heating and cooling in homes, offices, and industrial and commercial buildings.

“I’m glad that Mr. James gave this speech because it shows there’s a clear line between the old way of thinking, which is his way — let’s try to save all of the jobs that we have now, let’s hold tight and try to stick with a dying industry as long as we can,” said Marlinga, 75.

“Or we can do it my way, which is to embrace the new products of the future of the new green industrial revolution.”

In his stump speech to roughly 30 voters, James was transparent that he has a personal interest in the rapidly transforming auto industry in making his pitch on why they should send him to Congress.

“I run a logistics company,” said the CEO of Renaissance Global Logistics, a Detroit-based subsidiary of his family’s James Group Inc. “Having somebody who understands automotive logistics might be beneficial to a district that depends so much on automotive manufacturing.”

Without naming names, James took a few veiled shots at automakers that have piled up big profits in recent years.

“These automotive OEMs are saying they’re making billion-dollar profits per quarter and you have suppliers booking million-dollar loses,” James said. “How long do you think that’s going to last?”

James’ family businesses, James Group and Renaissance Global Logistics or RGL, are headquartered in a warehouse facility on Fort Street in Southwest Detroit. RGL is the James family’s export logistics business.

James campaign spokeswoman Abby Mitch later noted that James’ company benefits from EVs, moving battery parts for automakers through the supply chain.

‘You wanna see a ghost town?’

During his backyard stump speech, James made a reference to abandonment and disinvestment in Detroit in suggesting what may be in store for the northern suburbs from the demise of internal combustion engines.

“You wanna see a ghost town? We’ve already done this story before. Go south of 8 Mile,” James said. “We can’t let it happen again.”

James also warned that Michigan’s auto industry is slipping away — echoing the sentiments of some industry insiders and analysts.

“You know where the auto industry of the future is going? It’s going to South Carolina, it’s going to Tennessee, it’s going to Kentucky, Alabama, it’s going to Mississippi,” James said.

This is why, James said, the company his father founded a half-century ago has grown its business outside of Michigan.

“Because that’s where my customers have gone,” he said.

In an interview, James acknowledged he has a “vested interest in the success of Michigan’s automotive sector.”

“And we want to be part of the future of the automotive supply chain and we’re in talks with our customers on how we can be a part of that,” James told The News. “But it just can’t be about me. … There are people around this community who need a voice, who need an advocate, who need a plan.”

James explains EV comments

James also said his comments that EVs are “terrible for our planet” was in reference to strip mining in China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the extraction of metals needed to make batteries to propel vehicles — and the reported use of forced labor to gather those raw materials.

“I don’t think folks are looking at how we go about mining these things,” James said.

James said he’d favor blocking the sale of metals for EVs from China, the Congo and other countries that commit human rights abuses, even if it crippled U.S. production of EVs.

“One thing we cannot have happen, under any circumstance, is condoning slavery,” said James, who is five generations removed from slavery in his own family. “I’m not good with that.”

James said he favors an “all-the-above” approach in using cleaner energy sources. He mentioned biofuels and hydrogen cells, among other methods, that he believes the federal government is passing over in favor of battery electric vehicles.

James’ commentary about EVs seemed to go over well among most of the potential supporters who attended the barbeque at the invitation of David Deacon, who has volunteered for James’ campaign in the past.

Except for Deacon’s neighbor, Ned Herman, a car interior engineer at General Motors Co.

Herman said it’s unrealistic to place a future bet on hydrogen cells to power vehicles when battery technology has advanced at the direction of the auto industry, not the government.

“I like what he’s saying,” Herman said. “But I don’t think it’s practical.”