Word got out last week, somewhat erratically, that a Tennessee company, flush with an enormous green-energy grant from the federal government, is considering building a factory to manufacture electric-vehicle batteries at the same site in economically-struggling rural Virginia where Ford Motor Co. and its Chinese partner were planning to do the same — until they were run off by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in a fit of Sinophobia in late 2022 fueled by his presidential ambitions.
That Microporous, based in Piney Flats, Tenn., is eyeing Virginia — the company’s CEO, John Reeves, positively gushed about the opportunity before suddenly going silent — may be an understatement.
More to the point, Virginia is feverishly romancing the company, with Youngkin looking for something that passes for a win after his humbling in the midterm elections that saw the legislature restored to full Democratic control.
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The state’s economic development agency, whose recruiters can land fat, deal-closing bonuses, is making a full push for Microporous with the attempted secrecy that is routine in corporate recruiting by most states.
The agency is described as far more enthusiastic about it than the battle with Maryland over a new FBI headquarters. The internal shorthand for it apparently is a “government jobs program.”
Youngkin’s Trump-like criticism of the FBI can’t make it any easier to lure the agency to Northern Virginia, the FBI’s preferred choice for its 7,000 home-office employees. Maryland was selected but that’s in dispute — and under investigation — because of alleged political meddling.
Tagged “Project Stellar” — as in we’re shooting for the stars on this one — the Microporous deal represents at least the third try since Youngkin took office nearly two years ago to lure a big-payroll, bigger-dollar industry to Berry Hill, in Pittsylvania County, a former tobacco center. Berry Hill is a so-called megasite, convenient to transportation and education hubs, prepped and permitted for pretty much anything.
It was announced last week that the U.S. Energy Department, under Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, had issued to Microporous a $100 million grant to accelerate development in the United States of lithium-ion batteries to power electric vehicles — a line of business currently dominated by China.
It took a tick or two of the nonstop news cycle for it to emerge that Microporous is looking to spend that money in Virginia, investing upward of $1 billion in a plant at Berry Hill and employing 1,500. Other sites apparently had been considered — one outside St. Paul, in Virginia’s benighted coal country; the other near Greensboro, N.C., some 65 miles south of Pittsylvania County.
Reeves told Virginia Business, “I think it’s a win for my company. I think it’s a win for Virginia and the potential employees there.” He also described the venture as a “huge winner for the United States as well.”
But since that interview more than a week ago, Reeves has said nothing — at least on the record — a sign perhaps that expectations, given the unfortunate history of near misses at Berry Hill, were being perilously elevated by public utterances. He did not reply to an email from the Richmond Times-Dispatch seeking comment.
YoungkinWorld, too, is similarly mum, ignoring requests for comment.
That’s standard operating procedure in the governor’s office, which will soon be shopping for a new communications director. Becca Glover — a Trump alumna, an architect of Youngkin’s big smooch with Fox News and other right-wing friendlies and the wife of Obama tormentor U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California — is leaving the administration Dec. 15. It’s not clear whether she’s weary of the Richmond-D.C. commute or decided that Youngkin is damaged goods.
Youngkin unilaterally queered the go with Ford, killing a $3.5 billion investment and the promise of 2,500 jobs in an attempt to burnish his anti-communist credentials.
This, despite his well-documented bullishness on China as an multimillionaire-investment exec whose firm purchased ByteDance, parent of video platform TikTok, which he banned from state-owned mobile phones and other devices. Then, perhaps thinking no one would notice — or care — Youngkin took a $2 million political contribution from one of the company’s larger private shareholders.
How Youngkin torpedoed the emerging arrangement with Ford and Chinese battery-maker CATL, which the governor described as a front for that nation’s Communist Party, said more about his political aspirations than the latest red scare.
Ahead of Christmas 2022, a story that Youngkin would close Virginia to Ford-CATL was leaked to The Daily Caller, a conservative online news site possibly far less interested in him since his presidential potential was squashed by a cruel reality: the governor’s failure to deliver a Republican-ruled General Assembly.
Ford ended up selecting a site in its home state, Michigan, for that prized battery plant. But a funny thing happened on the way to construction: Because of uneven demand for electric vehicles — despite the push by the Biden administration under the IRA — Ford is delaying the project.
Next, Youngkin appealed to chemical giant Albemarle Corp., led by the Gottwalds, a wealthy Richmond family that has long financed Republican candidates and a scion of which was recently restored by the governor to the oversight board of the Virginia Military Institute, to erect at Berry Hill a factory to produce lithium hydroxide, an essential component in EV batteries.
It would have been a $1.3 billion investment and generated some 300 jobs. Albemarle said no thanks to Virginia, choosing a South Carolina site closer to its Charlotte, North Carolina, headquarters.
With Microporous nibbling at Virginia — it’s unclear whether the Youngkin budget, expected to be announced Dec. 20, will include incentives for the firm, providing the governor a chance to work with, rather than against, Democrats — there’s another big personality shaping this scheme: Democrat Mark Warner.
He’s the state’s senior U.S. senator and a former governor who has emphasized rural economic development even before his years in Richmond, 2002 to 2006 — never mind the countryside’s increasingly reflexive hostility toward his party.
Warner, who has personally courted Reeves, teamed with other Virginians in Congress — fellow Democrat Tim Kaine, the junior senator, and Republican Reps. Morgan Griffith and Robert Hurt, now retired — to successfully press the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to approve in 2014 site preparation permits for Berry Hill before anyone broke ground.
Warner kept a much lower profile during the fuss over the Ford plant. That might have had something to do with his principal assignment these days as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Was he worried about contradicting Youngkin on China? Maybe he didn’t want to agree with the governor?
But a good politician always wants it both ways, especially if he’s sizing up the other fella as a possible opponent in 2026.