UM economist's job: Cut red tape to aid those who depend on auto industry

March 31, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

University of Maryland economist Edward Montgomery has plenty of real-world experience, including a role in ending a Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997 while at the U.S. Department of Labor. He also has served as the No. 2 official at Labor with oversight of about 17,000 employees.

But nothing could prepare him for the huge job he assumed Monday. President Barack Obama charged the 53-year-old Howard County resident with marshaling federal aid to bring relief to reeling communities in Michigan and other auto-producing states.

And while the president did not directly say so, some auto industry experts predicted Montgomery would also wield influence in the boardrooms of General Motors and Chrysler. "I think he's been given a very broad agenda that will not get narrower but only broader," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Obama announced the choice of Montgomery on a day when the president raised the possibility of a controlled bankruptcy for the two automakers, even as he sought to reassure consumers by pledging government backing of new-car warranties.

At the White House ceremony, the bespectacled Montgomery stood at the president's side during the announcement of his lofty new title: director of recovery for auto communities and workers.

Obama said Montgomery would "cut through the red tape" and make sure the "full resources" of the federal government "assist the workers, communities and regions that rely on our auto industry," especially in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. "They will have a strong advocate in Ed," Obama said.

Without offering details, the president said Montgomery would tap the $787 billion economic stimulus package "to create new manufacturing jobs and new businesses where they're needed most - in your communities. And he will also lead an effort to identify new initiatives we may need to help support your communities going forward."

For the past six years, Montgomery has served as dean of Maryland's College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. His deputy, Robert Schwab, said his mix of academic, administrative and policy experience gives him "an ideal background" for his new duties.

"He's got a real gift for working with people," Schwab said. He recalls a story Montgomery told about his time at the Labor Department, late in the Clinton administration. He had mere weeks to resolve a long-running fight over regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"Everybody was at loggerheads, but slowly Ed managed to bring everybody around," he said.

Schwab said Montgomery knows he will not be able to solve all of the current problems: "There isn't a chance he'll have enough money to do everything people will want him to do. As a consequence he's going to disappoint some people."

As if his job description were not broad enough, some experts think Montgomery will get involved in trying to turn around GM and Chrysler, along with other members of the presidential task force on the auto industry.

"I think he's going to have to oversee some major plant closings and job losses," Chaison said. "And I think he's going to have to design a bankruptcy. My personal view is General Motors is heading toward a bankruptcy. Chrysler may well be."

Charles Craver, a labor relations expert at George Washington University, expects Montgomery to wield considerable influence. "I have the sense he's going to have to oversee the restructuring of the companies," Craver said.

But Schwab expressed skepticism about the notion of expanded duties. "I've never heard Ed say anything like this," he said. "He's got a particular portfolio."

Montgomery, who could not be reached for comment Monday, received a doctorate in economics from Harvard University in 1982. He arrived at Maryland in 1990 and soon received tenure. He joined the Labor Department as chief economist in 1997, rising to deputy secretary two years later. Months after joining the department, he took part in negotiations that helped end the 10-day Teamsters strike.

Montgomery returned to Maryland and since 2003 has guided the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. He will take a leave of absence April 11.

An early Obama supporter, Montgomery was part of the presidential transition process and last month was named to the auto industry task force. Even so, he has a fairly low public profile, which some think could be an asset.

As Chaison put it, "He doesn't bring much baggage with him."

EDWARD MONTGOMERY

* Age: 53

* Home: Fulton, Howard County

* Family: Wife, Kari, and three children

* New job: Director of recovery for auto communities and workers

Professional experience

* 2003-present: Dean, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park (Montgomery will take a leave of absence starting April 11)

* July 2002-July 2003: Senior associate dean, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park

* May 1999-January 2001: Deputy secretary and acting deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Labor

Dow rally ends with demands for new GM, Chrysler givebacks. PG 12

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