WASHINGTON — Matt Blunt isn't grabbing headlines and pulling legislative levers the way he used to from his gubernatorial perch in Jefferson City, Mo.
But as a top lobbyist for the American auto industry, Missouri's ex-governor and the son of Sen. Roy Blunt is still a power player — cajoling members of Congress, federal regulators, and foreign trading partners on a gamut of economic, environmental and trade issues.
Blunt is president of the American Automotive Policy Council, a lobbying group formed in 2009 by the "Big Three" U.S. automakers — Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. The companies tapped Blunt for the top job in 2011 as part of an effort to ratchet up the group's clout in Washington.
"He's been a terrific advocate,"said Ziad Ojakli, a lobbyist for Ford Motor Co. "He's really helped put the organization front-and-center in key debates in our industry."
Since taking the position, Blunt has immersed himself in technical trade issues. He's traveled the globe to press foreign officials to ease import restrictions on American-made vehicles. And he's used his political and policy expertise to put the council's agenda on Congress' radar.
Blunt, who was elected Missouri's governor in 2004 and did not seek a second four-year term,said he loves every aspect of the job — from learning about the minutiae of obscure trade rules to helping lawmakers understand the negative impact of currency manipulation.
But it's the big picture that got him interested in the first place.
"I've been given an opportunity to not just work for the auto companies, but to really advance public policy that's good for manufacturing overall," he said. "It's really important to the American economy."
Blunt just recently registered as a federal lobbyist. He's been pressing federal lawmakers and executive branch officials on auto-related issues since he took the job three years ago. But Blunt said he didn't do enough before to hit the official threshold that triggers the registration requirement, which includes spending at least 20% of one's time advocating in the federal arena, among other things.
Blunt said he decided to register now "out of an abundance of caution."
It's clear that Blunt and his organization are fully engaged in the legislative fray on Capitol Hill, where his father is in the U.S. Senate GOP leadership.
The council spent $344,000 on lobbying last year. The group's most recent report, from the first quarter of 2014, shows Blunt and two other auto council advocates have lobbied lawmakers on everything from job training to international trade agreements. The council's 2012 tax form shows that Blunt was paid $693,000 that year.
Blunt said he never talks to his father about the council's legislative agenda.
"I never under any circumstances talk to him about any of these issues or ... have a discussion with him that could in any way be construed as a lobbying discussion," Matt Blunt said. "My advocacy is definitely restricted when it comes to Sen. Roy Blunt."
His father reiterated that message, saying in a statement that his son provides lots of "advice on behalf of the American Automotive Policy Council, but as he has made clear, none of that advice will be directed to me."
The senator noted that doesn't mean he steers clear of auto industry issues — since Ford and GM are major employers in Missouri.
"The auto industry employs thousands of Missourians and continues to create new jobs in our state through numerous manufacturing locations, suppliers, repairs, and dealerships, which is why I have been and will continue to be very involved in these issues," Blunt said in his statement.
Some good-government critics say the senator's and his son's roles present an inherent conflict of interest.
"Even if he's not lobbying his father, he is certainly having a leg up compared to most everyone else in town, because he has both the name and probably relationships based on his father's position," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that promotes stronger government ethics and campaign finance reform.
She noted that "access and influence" are the keys to success in Washington, where "being able to get your phone call returned is three-quarters of the game."
Matt Blunt's supporters say he doesn't need his father to get lawmakers' attention.
"It's great that his dad is a U.S. senator, but regardless, in his own right as an ex-governor, he has the clout and the savvy and the expertise to be able to present our message anywhere," said Ojakli. Blunt's own résumé gives him all the entrée to congressional offices that he needs, Ojakli said.
He said the reason the council chose Matt Blunt for the job was because of his work as Missouri's governor on auto-related issues. Ojakli said it was clear during Blunt's tenure in Jefferson City that he understood the importance of the auto industry to Missouri's economy — and the U.S. economy.
"He was just somebody who knew our issues, understood our issues, and greatly cared about the renaissance that was well under way for American manufacturing and particularly auto manufacturing," he said. "He was our home run pick."
Debbie Dingell, who worked for 30 years as a senior executive at GM, said Blunt helped the industry recover politically after the auto bailout, in which the government led GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy. The effort left the industry bruised on Capitol Hill, with conservatives in particular deriding the bailout.
It was important to have a Republican take the helm of the council because "a lot of Republicans were down on the American auto industry," said Dingell, who until recently worked as a consultant to the council. "He brought credibility to the organization and immediately" helped strengthen the industries ties to congressional Republicans. Dingell is now running for Congress to replace her husband, longtime Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.
Blunt's allies say it was a natural move for him to take the job, even though he did not have expertise in auto issues.
"Matt likes a challenge," said his brother Andrew Blunt. "And I think the idea of working on the public policy issues helping tell the real story of the Big Three, especially in the years following the bailout, was appealing to him."
Blunt now lives in Middleburg, Va., with his wife, Melanie, and their two sons, who are 9 and 4 years old. They "seem to be really happy and enjoying this phase of their life together," his brother said.
Since taking the council job, Blunt has won over key lawmakers from states with a strong auto industry presence.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, a liberal Ohio Democrat who has worked with the council on a variety of issues, said that under Blunt's leadership, the group has "played a critical role in ensuring that American workers can compete on a level playing field. "
Brown cited Blunt's efforts to make currency manipulation — once a back-burner issue — a major focus of pending trade deals. Blunt has worked with labor leaders and other manufacturing interests to highlight the issue, Brown said.
Some countries — notably China and Japan — devalue their currency to make their products cheaper in the global marketplace. That puts U.S. manufacturers at a disadvantage. And Blunt has made this a top priority for the council.
"I've become increasingly convinced that it's good for the United States to make sure our trading partners play by the rules," Blunt said. "There are people who don't have jobs today because other countries manipulate their currencies."
Blunt has made a special effort to push this issue to the forefront of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the Obama administration's top foreign policy priorities. TPP is a free-trade agreement being negotiated by the U.S. and about a dozen Pacific Rim countries.
"Matt Blunt put TPP and currency on the map for policy makers," Ojakli said. "He's able to communicate in a very simple, straightforward way of why currency manipulation has a dramatic impact on our business. It's from being an elected official himself. He's walked in their shoes, and he understands how to communicate extremely well to that audience."
Blunt said there's no question it's one of his biggest accomplishments, growing more animated as he talked.
"The idea of including currency provisions in trade had very little traction" when he started at the council, Blunt said. "Today it's an entirely different picture."
He was more low-key when asked whether he might someday return to public office.
"You never say never," he said. But "I don't look back very often in life."
For now, he said, he is focused on his family and cars.