Democrats call out Youngkin on Ford plant decision
Lawmakers say governor harmed SoVa economic prospects
Democratic state delegates excoriated Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Tuesday for taking Virginia out of the running for a $3.5 billion Ford Motor Co. battery manufacturing plant that would have created at least 2,500 jobs in Southern Virginia. The governor said last week that although Virginia was a finalist for the economic development project, he called a stop to the plant because of its ties to a Chinese company, saying that he didn’t want Ford to serve as “a front for China” in Virginia.
“We all thought we were trying to achieve the same bipartisan goals of bringing good-paying jobs and economic development to Virginia, but apparently, in his absence last year, the governor missed that part of the transition briefing,” Loudoun County Del. David Reid, a Democrat, said on the House of Delegates’ floor. Reid was referring to Youngkin’s extensive 2022 domestic travel schedule, which many political onlookers saw as Youngkin testing the waters for a 2024 presidential run. “At this point, the governor needs to go to Southside, hold a town hall and explain why it is OK for him to make tens of millions of dollars off of investments in China and Chinese investments in the United States when he was in Carlyle Group, but he decided to play politics when it came to the livelihood for an entire region.”
According to a Richmond Times-Dispatch report, Ford was considering building a plant for electric vehicle batteries at Pittsylvania County’s 3,528-acre Southern Virginia Mega Site at Berry Hill, which so far has no tenants, while the state and other investors have spent more than $200 million to prepare the site for industrial use. The plant would have been run by Chinese company Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL), which builds lithium iron phosphate batteries.
Reid, who served as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserves and worked as a defense contractor, said that “no one in the intel community has ever even remotely implied that Ford was a front company for the Chinese.”
However, Chinese influence in the U.S. has become an increasingly popular talking point among GOP political leaders, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who are both considered potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. DeSantis has said in recent days that he will ask Florida lawmakers to bar Chinese investors from buying farmland and residences, and a Texas legislator has filed a bill that would prevent residents, governments and entities of China, Iran, North Korea and Russia from buying land in Texas.
Former President Donald Trump, the only announced GOP presidential candidate, criticized Youngkin in November 2022, claiming credit for his gubernatorial win and using an anti-Asian slur, saying that Youngkin’s name — spelled by Trump as “Young Kin” — “sounds Chinese.” The governor declined to criticize Trump, saying “I do not call people names.”
Youngkin, like Abbott, also barred all state employees from using state-issued phones or Wi-Fi networks to access Chinese-owned phone apps TikTok and WeChat in a December 2022 executive order, saying in a statement that “TikTok and WeChat data are a channel to the Chinese Communist Party, and their continued presence represents a threat to national security, the intelligence community and the personal privacy of every single American.” During his State of the Commonwealth speech last week, Youngkin called on the state legislature to ban selling Virginia farmland to Chinese investors.
“It is deeply disappointing that Gov. Youngkin would turn away business investment and jobs from Ford Motor Co. due to political considerations and a new obsession with China. It’s clear that the governor has put his personal politics above jobs for Virginia communities,” Democratic state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who is running for the late Donald McEachin’s congressional seat, said Friday.
However, as Reid noted, when Youngkin was co-CEO of Carlyle Group Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based private equity fund, he benefited financially from the company’s investments in Chinese industries, including ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company. In 2021, when he was running for governor, Youngkin had an estimated net worth of about $400 million, making him the wealthiest governor in the state’s history.
Republican delegates defended Youngkin’s decision to pull Virginia from consideration for the Ford plant. “Bringing the right jobs to Danville … is critical,” said Del. Terry Kilgore, a Republican who serves on the state Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, which assists localities in Southern and Southwest Virginia in boosting economic development projects with funds from tobacco civil lawsuits settled decades ago. “But Bloomberg reported in December that Ford Motor Co. was planning to run this proposed electric vehicle plant through a conglomerate that coordinates closely with the Chinese Communist Party.”
The Dec. 15, 2022, Bloomberg news article notes that former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last year strained relations between the U.S. and China, leading to CATL’s delay in building a new facility in North America, which would have been constructed in Virginia or Michigan, according to multiple news reports. Under Ford’s agreement with CATL, the American vehicle builder would own 100% of the plant while CATL would operate the plant and own the technology to build the batteries.
Meanwhile, Virginia Beach Republican Del. Tim Anderson cautioned against the use of cobalt in electric car batteries, arguing that “child slaves” are mining cobalt used in batteries and other tech devices. “If we’re going to bring new business to Virginia, I would like to bring something to Virginia that doesn’t have slave trade supply-chain issues.”
Siddharth Kara, a Harvard visiting professor, has written a book being published later this month about horrifying conditions at cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including child labor, which has also been reported by The New Yorker and other media outlets. The mineral is used in the production of lithium-ion batteries. According to the 2021 New Yorker story, cobalt keeps the batteries from catching fire, and cobalt’s value has gone up significantly in recent years.
However, lithium iron phosphate batteries — the kind that would be produced by the Ford plant — do not use cobalt, and electric vehicle manufacturers, including Tesla, are increasingly moving toward cobalt-free batteries, according to news reports.