DETROIT -- A directive recently handed down by a Detroit-area suburban mayor has ignited the latest round of a seemingly endless debate -- one that always burns with more intensity in the home of the Big Three than anywhere else.
It's the debate that relates to cars and it goes something like this: "Buy American!" vs. "I'll buy what I want!"
That debate sometimes, but not always, begins as a civil conversation. But the Detroit area has been hit hard in the last five years by the ongoing, sometimes enormous financial losses posted by the Big Three. The Big Three's financial woes have had a direct impact on the Michigan economy with hundreds of thousands of layoffs and/or buyouts.
Given that so many of the state's workers have lost their jobs -- and in some cases, their homes - it sometimes doesn't take long before the car debate escalates into an emotional one. That can lead to angry name-calling and insults - like many of the reader comments that flooded the online edition of the Detroit newspaper that first reported a controversial story.
This latest round of the discussion was inspired by a decision made by Jim Fouts, the mayor of Warren, Mich., a large Detroit suburb and Michigan's third-largest city, and where a good portion of the residents are (or were) autoworkers.
In mid-August, Fouts told his department heads, which amount to 40 or 50 of the city's more than 700 employees, that he "expects" the next car they buy will be an American model. More to the point, he expects them to drive General Motors or Chrysler vehicles, since both companies have various manufacturing or assembly plants in Warren -- not to mention GM's sprawling Tech Center -- and therefore are the city's two highest taxpayers.
Fouts, who drives a 2001 Chrysler Concorde himself, isn't being draconian about it. That is, he hasn't ordered his appointees to run right out and dump their Hondas, Toyotas, Saabs or Audis immediately. "But I strongly suggested that the next car they buy should be an American one, and that I had an equally strong expectation that they will do so," Fouts said. "Legally, since they are 'at-will' employees, I have the right to mandate, and an expectation that they will meet that mandate."
Some have accused Fouts of over-stepping his authority by "butting in" to his employees' private lives, while others have given the policy a hearty "thumbs up."
"Some of them are not enthusiastic about it," Fouts said, noting that one department head currently drives a Mercedes-Benz vehicle. "But many of these department heads make more than $100,000 a year, and I told them that they might not be able to enjoy the economic comforts they currently enjoy if it were not for the amount of taxes that GM and Chrysler pay to the city.
"I think of it as 'economic patriotism.'"
Fouts said he did not know how many of his department heads currently drive imports, although one of his appointees, Warren Police Commissioner Bill Dwyer, guessed that about 90 percent of the appointees already drive American-made cars.
"But the ones who are not happy about this -- well, they won't talk to [reporters] about that, because they know how I feel about it," said Fouts.
Dwyer, who drives a Jeep Cherokee, supports the mayor's "buy American" expectation. "I believe that, the way the economy is, that Americans should be buying American cars. And, as department heads, I think it's important for us to be setting an example for the other city workers."
One of the reasons usually cited for the U.S. automakers' loss of market share are consumer perceptions that imports are higher in quality -- although several recent surveys by various research groups have revealed that Detroit carmakers have closed the "quality gap" in recent years to the point that it is almost negligible.
And the handful of Detroit-area residents/natives we talked to about the "Buy American" debate had no complaints about the quality of their American-made cars - or their foreign-made ones, for that matter. One is Tracy Balazy of Dearborn - the Detroit suburb that is home to the Ford Motor Company's world headquarters. "I drive a 2000 Saturn, because it was cheaper than a Honda," Balazy said. "And other than brakes and the usual things, I've had no problems with it, and it now has 101,000 miles on it."
Balazy has an interesting take on the topic of whether we should feel compelled to "buy American," when it comes to cars, however - and whether we should be instructed to do so.
"The average American probably spends a lot more on other things - clothes, household goods, you name it - than on cars. I think it's hypocritical for someone to tell everyone to 'buy American' as it pertains to cars, but then take advantage of the great prices on imported goods at say, Wal-Mart," Balazy said. "I've passed up many good deals, and have abstained from buying a lot of consumer goods I've wanted over the past year, just to avoid buying foreign-made products."
Ken Reibel, a Michigan native who's lived in Milwaukee for more than 20 years, drives a 2002 Mazda Protégé, while his wife motors around in a 2001 Toyota Corolla. "We bought both of them used, from neighbors," he says. "They've both been good runners. No serious problems. The Protégé is a sweet ride.
"But I'm not even sure what it means to 'Buy American' anymore," says Reibel. "Ford has a huge stake in Mazda, and Japanese automakers build most of their cars for the American market right here in the U.S., with American labor. It's easier to 'Buy American' if you're purchasing a shirt or case of beer. But cars are different. I'm sure if you disassembled a Chevrolet Malibu or a Ford Windstar you would find an appalling number of foreign-made components and assemblies."
Gary Galusky is a Detroit-area native/resident who gives high marks to quality of his American-made vehicle. For the last couple of years, Galusky has actually maintained two residences: one in Dearborn and one in Sutton's Bay, in Northern Michigan - a five-hour drive. "I make that commute regularly, about every three weeks, in a 2005 Ford Escape that I bought new. It now has 103,000 miles on it, and it's never required anything other than ordinary maintenance," says Galusky.
Conrad Sutter grew up in Harper Woods, a Detroit suburb just a few miles from Warren, and now lives in Richland, in western Michigan. Sutter says he agrees with the "Buy American" sentiment. "I believe what the mayor of Warren is doing is okay," says Sutter. "I wouldn't suppose there are a lot of Apple Computers being purchased in Redmond, Washington (home of Microsoft Corp.), either.
"Nothing wrong with that."
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