State Politics

Obama, Gov. Rick Scott use same Jacksonville company as evidence of their economic success

President Barack Obama speaks following his tour of the Saft America factory in Jacksonville, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. The plant opened in 2011 with help from federal money from economic stimulus package Obama pushed through Congress in 2009.
President Barack Obama speaks following his tour of the Saft America factory in Jacksonville, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. The plant opened in 2011 with help from federal money from economic stimulus package Obama pushed through Congress in 2009. AP

President Barack Obama and Gov. Rick Scott are battling over the same building in efforts to cement their legacies in stimulating the economy.

With Obama’s visit to a lithium-ion battery company Friday, the political leaders from opposing parties have now visited the same firm within four months, both holding it up as an example of how their economic policies have spurred Florida’s economic recovery since 2009.

After touring Saft America for about 20 minutes, Obama said the nearly 300 “jobs of the future” the company is creating is a clear success of the federal stimulus, also called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed seven years ago this month. Obama said despite withering criticism from Republicans over the $831 billion program from its inception, it kept America from slipping into an economic depression and spurred innovative new jobs.

“I came here to Saft to show what it means to invest in the future,” Obama said. “Seven years ago the ground we are standing on was an empty plot of swampland. I don’t know if gators make it up this far, but it was not someplace you’d want to be wandering around. It had been ignored for more than a decade since the Navy base here closed.”

Obama said the Recovery Act didn’t just create jobs. He said it invested in the innovation and technology that Saft represents.

“We took an empty swamp and turned it into an engine of innovation,” Obama said.

Four months earlier, Scott was touring the same 235,000-square-foot facility and standing just a few hundred feet to the right highlighting his education policies to emphasize high-tech job training and his efforts to help recruit national and international companies to expand their operations in Florida.

“The governor has been here twice; he’s been a huge supporter,” said Christopher P. Kaniut, general manager for Saft America. “He’s very good for business.”

Just three days ago in Jacksonville, about 20 miles from where Obama was Friday, Scott held another rally to draw attention to his job recruitment program that helped lure Macquarie Group, an Australian financial services company that promises to bring 120 new jobs to Florida.

Regardless who gets the credit, the visit is a testament to the gains Jacksonville has made over the last four years, said Gregory Anderson, president of the Jacksonville City Council. He said the area’s high quality of life and low cost of living has resulted in growing diversity in the areas economy.

The unemployment rate has been in steady decline. In 2009, Duval County’s unemployment rate was over 11 percent. Today, the unemployment rate is 5.5 percent.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a Republican, leaves no doubts that he credits Scott with turning around the state’s economy and Jacksonville’s. But he said having Scott and Obama both in his city in a matter of days to talk about the economy speaks to the area’s success.

“Anybody who wants to talk about jobs is welcome to come to Jacksonville,” Curry said.

That was certainly Obama’s mission on Friday. The Department of Energy awarded $95.5 million to Saft America to create lithium ion batteries for the military and specialty hybrid vehicles. The company has also received nearly $20 million incentives from state and local governments.

“This was an example of the fruits of those investments we made,” Obama told a group of more than 200. “Jobs that America needs done, getting done right here in Florida.”

But the company that both Obama and Scott celebrated has had shaky moments recently. Kaniut, general manger of the Saft America, said the company had to restructure in 2015. The New York Times reported earlier this week that Saft’s chairman said it will take years before its Jacksonville factory is profitable.

“Sometimes you go through peaks and valleys as you are growing a business,” Kaniut said of the factory that opened in 2011.

Still, during his visit on Friday, Obama, was all praise for the company.

“Taxpayers are getting their money back — and some — and these businesses are thriving,” Obama said.

In his 25-minute speech, he pushed back against unrelenting criticism of GOP presidential candidates.

“Anybody who says we are not absolutely better off today than we were just seven years ago, they’re not leveling with you, they’re not telling the truth,” Obama said.

“By almost every economic measure, we are significantly better off,” he said

Even before Air Force One touched down at Cecil Airport in Jacksonville, the Republican National Committe was not about to let Obama take a victory lap on the stimulus without weighing in.

Ali Pardo, the RNC spokeswoman said the “stimulus failed to live up to expectations, yet this Administration and Democrats on the campaign trail continue to advocate for extreme liberal policies that have left the middle class behind.”

The attention that Obama and Scott showered on Jacksonville goes beyond boasting about jobs. Duval County, which has about 900,000 people, has become a pivotal, competitive area for both national and statewide races.

In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry lost Duval County by nearly 62,000 votes to President George W. Bush, en route to losing the state and the election. Four years later, Obama lost the county to John McCain by less than 8,000 votes, the closest margin for a Democratic presidential candidate in more than three decades. That helped propel Obama to a narrow victory in the nation’s most populous swing state.

“Duval County was a huge part of the plan,” said Steve Schale, Obama’s 2008 state campaign director, noting that Obama visited Jacksonville three times during the general election, including the day before the election.

Scott invested heavily in Jacksonville in 2014 during his re-election campaign, winning the area by 34,000, more than half of his total margin of victory in Florida.

“We are important in both statewide and national elections,” Curry said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

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