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Foxconn goes to... Wisconsin

Jul 29, 2017

So the maker of Apple’s iPhone pledged to pump ten billion dollars and as many as 13,000 jobs into southeast Wisconsin.

But, don’t despair, Michigan. This thing ain’t over.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

Even as the chairman of Foxconn Technology Group watched President Donald Trump this week claim credit for the contract manufacturer’s investment, folks back in Michigan are training their eyes on another prize.

That’d be a separate Foxconn investment in southeast Michigan, one that would produce smaller liquid crystal displays for automotive and electronic device applications.

It’d be worth a few billion, too. It’d employ at least a few thousand folks, too. And it’d burnish the state’s evolving reputation as a smart place to invest, to find competent talent, to tap Michigan’s well-deserved technical cred.

The so-called “Good Jobs” legislation finally signed this week by Governor Rick Snyder should help close a deal expected to be announced before Labor Day. But landing Foxconn – preferably, the current thinking goes, for the so-called Aerotropolis next to Detroit Metro Airport – will be about location and infrastructure, talent and well, politics.

A little back story: during last year’s presidential campaign, Trump more than once used rallies to slam Foxconn. Why? Because it assembles iPhones in China under contract to Apple, shipping them to the United States and other markets. Can’t have that. Maybe, he mused, a Trump administration should slap import duties on the Chinese-made devices?          

That’s all Foxconn’s bosses needed to hear.

Maybe the Taiwan-based company would make a seven billion-dollar investment in the United States, Chairman Terry Gou mused publicly. A few months later in Taipei, he named at least five states his company was targeting: Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Five states Trump just happened to carry in his win over Hillary Clinton. So, why not plan to do it all over again with a little help from the fellas at Foxconn?

In theory, anyway.

Fast forward to this week: Foxconn’s first big play in the Trump era will be in Wisconsin. Most likely in the district represented by Republican Speaker Paul Ryan. It’s a state the Trump re-elect effort would need to once again breach the Blue Wall Democrats took for granted in 2016.

Then maybe a few thousand jobs for Michigan, another major brick in that Blue Wall. Do I hear another for Pennsylvania? Or Ohio?

The politics underpinning this business decision-making are unmistakable. Yes, those same industrial states elected Republican governors and legislatures in the Red wave of 2010. Yes, they reformed corporate tax rates, and Michigan became a right-to-work state. And, yes, they’re far more competitive (and livable) than tired Rust Belt stereotypes allow.

But here we have a president of the United States lobbing veiled threats he may not even be able to carry out. He’s using them essentially to leverage multi-billion investments from a foreign company whose business depends on maintaining the free flow of its goods into the world’s richest market.

It’s a deal. But its art is in the eye of the beholder.

Daniel Howes is a columnist with The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.