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Valley awaits steel revival

By Bertram de Souza

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Realizing that he has failed to bully the American automobile industry into doing his bidding, President Donald J. Trump is now laying claim to being the “Man of Steel.”

Consider this tweet from Trump on Monday:

“Tariffs on the ‘dumping’ of Steel in the United States have totally revived our Steel Industry. New and expanded plants are happening all over the U.S. We have not only saved this important industry, but created many jobs. Also, billions paid to our treasury. A BIG WIN FOR U.S.”

But the tweet is of little comfort to the Republican president’s legions of supporters in the predominantly Democratic Mahoning Valley who were swayed by the promises he made during the 2016 election.

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Trump, the billionaire developer from New York City who had never run for office before, came to the jobs-challenged Valley and promised to resurrect heavy manufacturing in the U.S., including the auto and steel industries.

His message to the desperate residents of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties struck a chord.

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In the November 2016 general election against Democrat Hillary Clinton, a party insider, the GOP standardbearer shocked the political world by carrying predominantly Democratic Trumbull County and coming close in heavily Democratic Mahoning County. He had no problem in GOP-dominated Columbiana County.

Blue-collar workers – white males, in particular – were drawn to him like flies to you-know-what.

Six months after he was sworn into office, President Trump returned to the Valley and at a campaign-style rally at the Covelli Centre attended by 7,000 made the following statement that served as the set-up for a pledge that went viral:

“I rode through your beautiful roads coming from the airport, and I was looking at some of those big, once incredible job-producing factories, and my wife, Melania, said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘Those jobs have left Ohio.’”

Then came “The Promise” from the president of the United States about the huge steel mills that once dotted the banks of the Mahoning River:

“They’re all coming back. They’re all coming back. Don’t move. Don’t sell your house ... Do not sell it. We’re going to get those values up. We’re going to get those jobs coming back, and we’re going to fill up those factories or rip them down and build brand new ones. It’s going to happen.”

Valley residents allowed themselves to believe that Trump would actually keep his promise – given that he imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum from countries that for years dumped their products on the U.S. at artificially low prices.

The president immediately won the support of Valley Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Howland, and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, both long-time advocates of leveling the playing field with America’s trading partners.

Trump is right that the steel and aluminum tariffs have triggered investments in new mills and the expansion of existing ones, but none of that money is being spent in the Valley.

Indeed, while the president is patting himself on the back, General Motors has thumbed its nose at him with the announcement that it’s idling four plants in the U.S. and one in Canada. A total of 14,000 white- and blue-collar jobs will be affected.

Trump had threatened the domestic auto companies with financial penalties if they did not shutdown production facilities abroad and return the jobs to America.

One of the plants GM is idling is the 52-year-old Lordstown complex that produced the once-popular Chevrolet Cruze. Sales of compact cars and other sedans have been declining while demand for SUVs, crossovers and trucks has been skyrocketing.

To add insult to the economic injury the Mahoning Valley will suffer as a result of the loss of good-paying jobs at the Lordstown plant, GM decided to build the reincarnated Chevrolet Blazer at its plant in Mexico.

Nonetheless, Trump’s initial reaction to GM CEO Mary Barra’s announcement had the same message for the Valley as his promise about the steel mills.

In response to Barra’s announcement, the president said, “I don’t like what she did, I think it’s nasty, but it doesn’t really matter because under my leadership from a national standpoint Ohio is going to replace those jobs like in two minutes. But I don’t like that General Motors does that. And they’re going down to Mexico to make cars.”

Trump also questioned GM’s decision to focus on electric cars, saying the company is taking a huge risk by discontinuing gas powered sedans.

As for the decision to idle U.S. plants while expanding the one in Mexico, the president said of Barra:

“But to tell me a couple of weeks before Christmas that she’s going to close in Ohio and Michigan is not acceptable to me. And she’s either going to open fast or somebody else is going to go in, but General Motors is not going to be treated well.”

However, the threats against GM are all bark and no bite – thus far.

In March, production of the Cruze will end and the huge Lordstown plant will be padlocked.

And here’s another kick in the pants for the president from General Motors:

The company is now the leading producer of automobiles in Mexico, according to Automotive News.

But that isn’t all: The publication says that production in Mexico makes up a quarter of GM’s output.

The giant automaker has reduced output in the U.S. by 5 percent and in Canada by 33 percent.

So here’s the bottom line: Had President Trump kept his promise to revive the steel industry in Valley, the loss of auto manufacturing would have been a lot easier to accept.

But even though steel-making in the U.S. is on the upswing, this region isn’t sharing in the largess.

That’s why a Vindicator editorial on Jan. 13 urged Trump to persuade U.S. steelmaker Nucor to build a steel production facility in the Valley. The company has announced plans to spend $1.3 billion on a plant capable of producing 1.2 million tons of plate products per year. A total of 400 full-time jobs would be created.

Nucor CEO John Ferriola has credited President Trump for his company’s growing fortunes and the decision to build its new plant in the Midwest.

Time is running out for Trump to keep his promise to the people of the Mahoning Valley.