On Veterans Day 2009, a year after Barack Obama was elected president, the CEO of Emerson Electric, a Fortune 500 company based in St. Louis, bemoaned what he characterized as Washington’s hostility toward American business.
“What do you think I am going to do?” said David Farr. “I’m not going to hire anybody in the United States. I’m moving.”
Actually, Farr—who has raised substantial funding for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign—started to move Emerson jobs offshore long before Obama entered the White House. Back in 2005, when George W. Bush was starting his second term, a report from Bain & Company praised Emerson for embarking on an explicit strategy to “aggressively move production offshore.” The consulting firm, where Romney earned his management stripes, called outsourcing to low-cost countries “imperative,” and an “elementary decision” in its report on Emerson. (A representative from Bain & Company would not confirm or deny that Emerson was a client.)
If Bain promoted outsourcing at Emerson, though, that would hardly come as a surprise. Romney’s well-documented business career largely mirrors Farr’s corporate strategy. In 1998, for instance, Romney was at the helm of Bain Capital affiliate Brookside Capital Partners Fund and invested $14 million in Global-Tech, a company that relied heavily on outsourcing US jobs to China.
But as a candidate for president, Romney has said he wants to make it more attractive for businesses to stay in America by lowering the corporate tax rate. Yet on the front page of Romney’s tax proposal, right below the corporate tax reduction, is a bullet point for a “territorial tax,” which would exempt companies from paying any levy on profits made overseas — and seems contrary to Romney’s promise of creating domestic jobs. The territorial tax could further motivate any number of U.S. corporations – like Emerson — to expand outside the country’s borders.
Pending that change, Farr has continued to make good on his promise to grow Emerson’s business elsewhere. With approximately 133,000 employees and 235 locations worldwide, Emerson manufactures products for a wide range of industries: automotive, food, mining, paper, and solar, among others. The company has cut 26,300 American jobs since 2009 and grown its profit margins through cheap production, primarily in China.
Does the territorial tax change in Romney’s platform reflect Farr’s influence? Farr has has given $52,500 to Romney’s campaign, and his wife Lelia has given $7,500. Individual Emerson employees have donated $61,000. Emerson’s Head of Government Affairs, Jim Carter, is a bundler for Romney, and has gathered another $27,500 for him. The company’s Political Action Committee has also given $10,000 to the former governor’s presidential campaign.
Farr’s personal contribution to Romney includes a single $50,000 donation, presumably from the $50,000-a-plate dinner he and his wife Lelia hosted with Romney’s wife Ann early this month. The Farrs raised $2 million for the campaign at the fundraiser. And according to financial disclosure filings, Romney has held between $15,000 and $50,000 of stock in Emerson.
Farr’s wife Lelia is a big Romney backer, too. Her over-the-top and at times inscrutable Twitter feed (@lelia888) is almost 100 percent political. On Sept. 26, she responded sarcastically to an Obama tweet about wanting to outsource fewer jobs, typing “Just like GM where 70% of the cars are made outside the USA?”—a remark that left her seeming ignorant of her husband’s line of work. On Oct. 16, the day before the second presidential debate, she tweeted, “Outsourcing: hit it out of the park, Mitt!” Lelia also tweets indictments of Obama almost hourly, calling him, among other things, “narcissistic,” “incompetent,” and a “spineless coward.”
Beyond her political tweets, Farr and Emerson have long sought influence in Washington. Last year, the company spent $1.2 million in lobbying fees on a variety of issues including corporate taxes, and is on track to match that amount again in 2012. Walter Galvin, Emerson’s vice chairman and former chief financial officer, testified before Congress in 2011, enumerating the company’s hopes for “tax reform.”
A year later, Romney’s official tax plan bears a striking resemblance to Emerson’s wish list. Romney plans to lower the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent and change what he calls America’s “deeply irrational” policy of taxing corporate income earned abroad.
Farr and Emerson are also close to one of Romney’s top economic advisors, Jim Talent, the former Missouri senator who is a rumored contender for a Cabinet position should Romney win the election. Emerson’s PAC, employees, and employees’ family members have donated $116,000 to Talent’s past campaigns. David and Lelia Farr have personally given $8000 to Talent.
Further deepening the connection is Talent’s wife Brenda, executive director of the Show-Me Institute, which promotes conservative visions of smaller government and reduced taxes. Before joining the non-profit institute, Brenda Talent was an attorney at the law firm Bryan Cave and represented Emerson in a 2006 Missouri Supreme Court case over tax disputes.
In November 2005, only a few months after the Bain report praised Emerson for its eagerness to outsource, the company announced it would close its automotive plant in Kennett, MO, sending the work to Mexico and nearby Indiana, and leaving hundreds of local workers jobless. Jim Talent petitioned the U.S. Labor Department to qualify Emerson’s ex-employees for federal job-training assistance.
A representative of Emerson said the company declined comment for this article.
In July 2011 David Farr sent an email to Emerson’s workforce encouraging them to donate to U.S. Representative Todd Akin’s campaign for Jim Talent’s old U.S. Senate seat. The suggested donation for the event was $1,000, but a donation of $5 000 — the maximum allowed under federal law — meant an invitation to “an intimate dinner event” with Akin, Farr, and Farr’s wife Lelia. Emerson has donated $36,000 to Akin, more than any other company. (Akin recently stepped into controversy over his comments on rape and abortion, saying “legitimate rape” was less likely to lead to pregnancy.)
In the email to his employees, Farr said any decision to contribute to Akin would be voluntary and have “no impact on your employment with Emerson.” But he was clear about his own political views.
“For us,” he wrote, “having Todd Akin’s leadership in the U.S. Senate is extremely important.”
Research assistance by Max Jaeger, Catherine Thompson, and Andrea Hilbert
Photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais