Auto Lobbyist’s Assembly-Line Perspective Influences Hill Outreach

Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:02pm

One of Stephen Ciccone’s first jobs after getting hired at Toyota was to install roof antennas and clip wiring into the trunks of Camrys as they snaked along an assembly line in Georgetown, Ky. It was an unremarkable assignment for the average auto worker, but it was more of a challenge for Ciccone, who’s the company’s new top lobbyist.

“I had 58 seconds to do three things,” recalled Ciccone, who joined one of the world’s biggest automakers on Oct. 24.

Even as a lobbyist, “I’m part of that line,” he said. “That’s an extraordinary insight that I’m not sure I could’ve grasped as memorably had I not worked on the line.”

The factory experience was all part of what Ciccone calls his “onboarding.” The ponytailed native of upstate New York spent his first several months meeting with 120 executives, driving a $400,000 hydrogen car down Highway 101 in Los Angeles, observing crash tests and huddling with dealers.

He has only recently begun reaching out to Capitol Hill and government officials.

“It was a very deliberate approach to give me the time to become ‘Toyotaed’ so that I could represent the company with credibility and with the deeper understanding of not only our business but, perhaps even more important, our culture,” Ciccone said.

Some of that outreach will be on display this month at the Capitol South Metro Station. Toyota is planning a “station domination,” where it will buy up available ad space, Ciccone said. Also this month, 60 company executives will fly in to lobby on the Hill.

Ciccone and his staff of five in-house lobbyists will help shepherd the group. Toyota retains several outside firms, too, including Brown Rudnick, Capitol Hill Consulting Group, Greenberg Traurig, Hogan Lovells, Pendulum Strategies, the Glover Park Group and Van Ness Feldman, according to recent lobbying disclosures. Last year, Toyota spent $4.4 million on federal lobbying.

The new top lobbyist said he is “not anticipating any immediate change” to the in-house shop. “I was fortunate to inherit a very good team,” he noted.

But, he said, when it comes to the outside consultants, “We are revisiting the specific firms, and so there’s some chance we’ll make some adjustments.”

Ciccone replaced Josephine Cooper, who left the company after the crisis in 2009 and 2010 that included the recall of more than 7.5 million of its vehicles for unintended acceleration and other problems. Toyota executives testified at Congressional hearings on the matter.

Despite the recalls, Toyota this year boasts several top safety picks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and last year announced a major investment in an auto safety research center in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“We are credible to take a higher profile role around debates of safety issues,” Ciccone said. “In those areas where we have the credibility, we want to be seen as leaders in the public policy space.”

Not everyone is convinced.

Joan Claybrook, a former National Highway Traffic Safety administrator and one-time head of Public Citizen, said skepticism remains about how the company handled the sudden-acceleration recalls.

“Twice, Toyota got the highest fine ever from the Department of Transportation, which felt the company had not been honest with them,” Claybrook said. As a result, Ciccone “has some heavy lifting to do to repair Toyota’s reputation,” she said.

Ciccone acknowledged there were issues with the company’s vehicle floor mats that pinned down accelerators, but he said there were no electronic problems. When he met with the company’s CEO, Akio Toyoda, the recall obviously came up, he said.

“This experience only reinforces our primary focus, which is: always make better cars,” Ciccone said. “In terms of the public policy space, part of our vision is that there will be much more interaction between leaders in our company and leaders in government. In the past, we may have relied more on our lobbyists to interface with government.”

Ciccone is something of an unknown commodity in K Street and Capitol Hill circles. He is not yet registered to lobby for Toyota, according to filings with Congress, but a spokesman for the carmaker said Ciccone would file soon. He was previously registered with Eastman Kodak, where he worked for more than two decades. Unlike his predecessor at Toyota, a folksy North Carolinian who recently won the Bryce Harlow Business-Government Relations Award from her lobbyist peers, even Ciccone’s fans concede that he is not a typical K Streeter.

Ciccone started his career as a lobbyist in New York and spent 24 years with Kodak, where he ultimately was responsible for worldwide government affairs.

“Steve understands Washington but is not the quintessential Washington insider lobbyist,” said Doug Pinkham, who heads the Public Affairs Council and has known Ciccone for more than a decade.

Need proof? Ciccone’s ponytail.

“He has a very international flavor to his style,” Pinkham said. “He’s the kind of person that if you read some really off-the-wall business or philosophical book, he’s already read it.”

Pinkham called Ciccone, who previously chaired the council’s international network, the “perfect” fit for Toyota. “Certainly after you’ve faced a crisis, once it’s died down a bit, you need to use that lesson to engage and understand your political risks and opportunities,” he added.

In addition to the big-picture outreach to the Hill, under Ciccone’s direction, Toyota will lobby specifically on energy, environmental and trade issues.

The company has no political action committee, and Ciccone said he has no immediate plans to form one. “And I never try to make predictions beyond this year,” he said.