His employees affectionately call him 'Grizz'; his hometown says he's left a toxic legacy. But why is he running for the presidency?
ELLSWORTH, MICH. — IN this small, conservative Republican town where Morry Taylor Jr. grew up in the heart of northern Michigan's tart-cherry country, there are no campaign posters boosting the hometown boy.
Indeed, the only reminder of the multimillionaire Republican presidential candidate is overwhelmingly negative: an eyesore on Ellsworth's lakefront. The 24-acre former Taylor family factory site, now littered with hazardous waste and the charred debris of collapsing buildings, is on Michigan's superfund environmental cleanup list.
Ellsworth residents are bitter over the more than $3 million in taxpayer money being spent to clean the site of the factory, where Mr. Taylor served as vice president. They are incensed by Taylor's self-financed, multimillion-dollar bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
''People here are mad,'' says pro tem Ellsworth Mayor Hugh Campbell. ''If Taylor ran against Clinton I don't think he could get 10 percent of the vote here.''
Yet about 400 miles to the southwest in Quincy, Ill., it is easy to find business peers and employees who feel differently. Quincy is home to Titan Wheel International Inc., the headquarters of Taylor's current business empire and one of the largest employers in town.
''[Taylor] has an excellent reputation for being a very hard-nosed and astute businessman,'' says Dwaine Gray, president of the Quincy Chamber of Commerce. Taylor's campaign enjoys support from both Titan workers and the Quincy business community, he says.
''They want someone with a good, solid business head running the country,'' Mr. Gray says.
Is the real Morry Taylor the leading light of Quincy or the sojourner with unfinished business in Ellsworth? In either case, why is he running for president?
In Des Moines, Iowa, where he runs his campaign from a fleet of six Land Yacht recreational vehicles, Taylor offers his own clues.
''We've got the worst of the law profession running our country,'' he says, plugging a favorite campaign theme. ''Somebody has got to go in and cut Washington.'' He pledges to balance the federal budget in 18 months by slashing the top third of the nation's 3 million bureaucrats (especially ''the dummies,'' he says).
As for his critics, Taylor slams them as either envious or ''a bunch of nuts.'' ''I don't care. They can all become Dole supporters as far as I am concerned,'' he says with his usual bluntness.
A long-shot candidate for the Republican ticket with only about 1 percent of the vote in polls, Taylor has been largely glossed over by rivals and the national media.
But interviews with him and his acquaintances suggest he is more complicated than the image he projects - one of a hard-driving businessman and ''shop-floor populist'' who wants to shake things up Ross Perot-style in Washington.
Born in Detroit in 1944, Taylor moved with his family to Ellsworth in 1950. His family stood out for their ostentation in the conservative farming town. ''They always had new cars and were the first people in town to have a color TV set,'' says John Hastings, who lives across the street from the family home.
Taylor earned a reputation as a boastful youth who liked to drag Main Street in his hot rod, a souped up 1924 Model-T Ford. He played football at Ellsworth High School and went on to study mechanical engineering at Michigan Technological University in 1968-69, but fell a few credits short of graduating.
''He was an average student,'' recalls Raymond Halonen, an associate professor at Michigan Tech who had Taylor in class. ''The only reason he stands is out is that he was dapper and handsome, as I recall, with jet-black hair, and seemed just itching to get on with life.''
Taylor was hired by General Motors as a plant engineer in 1969 but says he quit after six months because he was ''bored'' and the company was ''screwed up'' and ''too top heavy.''
Returning to Ellsworth, Taylor worked from 1970 to 1972 as his father's ''right-hand man'' at the family's lakefront business, Morweld Steel Corp. The company had a $4.7-million US Defense Department contract to produce 105 millimeter projectiles as tank ammunition for the Army. As vice president, Taylor says he was in charge of production.
Morweld eventually lost this defense contract and in 1975 filed for bankruptcy. During a subsequent court audit, investigators discovered that in 1971 Morweld had submitted a series of false invoices to the government, resulting in double payments of nearly $240,000 from the Defense Department's Supply Contracting Administration. Taylor's father was convicted of fraud in 1977, fined $10,000, and put on an 18-month probation.
The Taylor family still denies the charges. ''It was an accounting mistake,'' says Cheri Taylor Holley, Taylor's younger sister, who has served as his lawyer and is now general counsel for Titan Wheel. ''That was all it was, period. Those things happen every day. The fraud conviction was wrong.''
The younger Taylor, meanwhile, left Ellsworth for Detroit in 1972. There, at a hotel, he met former General Motors foreman Harold ''Hank'' Washington, who would become a longtime friend and business partner. Together, they started a small manufacturing company in a depressed inner-city neighborhood near the site of the 1967 Detroit riots.
''Morry was like a big country bumpkin,'' Mr. Washington recalls. ''His suit coats came down to his fingers. He wasn't quite color coordinated,'' he laughs. Still, Taylor made up for his mismatched ties with toughness.
''He would go up to people on their front porch and say 'Hey, if you don't have a job, why are you sitting on your butt?''' Washington says.
The business, however, failed. In 1974, Taylor became an independent wheel salesman and representative, setting up a corporation that, like his family's firms, changed names and locations repeatedly over the years.
Taylor sold wheels mainly for Titan Proform Wheels of Toronto. One day, Taylor says he got into a shouting match over the sale of a crane with Titan's boss, Canadian multimillionaire Joseph Tannenbaum. Afterward, the men became friends.
''He became like my second father, I learned so much from that old man,'' says Taylor. ''I also learned that he was worth about $500 million.''
Meanwhile in Ellsworth, the Taylor family set up a new business called International Disc Corporation in 1979 at the site of the defunct Morweld Steel. Taylor served as a director of IDC from 1979 until it shut down in 1984.
In 1983, Taylor persuaded Mr. Tannenbaum to buy a failing wheel plant in Quincy, and helped turn it around by slashing middle management, shutting out the United Auto Workers, and enticing customers with attractive terms in return for long-term purchasing contracts.
As chief executive officer, Taylor would ride around the 1.3 million-square-foot plant on a red motor scooter checking up on workers, earning the nickname ''the Grizz'' for his gruff, shoot-from-the-hip style. Titan grew by 1994 to have nearly 1,000 employees and total sales of more than $400 million.
In 1990, Taylor engineered a leveraged buyout of Titan from Tannenbaum, and in 1993 took Titan public with a $35 million stock offering. Since then, the opening stock price of $15 has risen more than 50 percent, providing Taylor with cash to buy other failing tire and wheel manufacturing firms.
With a fortune worth ''somewhere north of $40 million,'' Taylor last year cashed in $15 million in stock and launched a bid for the White House under the slogan ''Taylor-Made for President.''
Prominent Republicans, including Jack Kemp, attempted to discourage Taylor from running ''on the grounds that he was a political outsider and wouldn't make it and was going to throw money down the tubes,'' says Washington, who now works for Taylor at Titan.
But Taylor decided to run against the odds. ''Morry got to a point in his life - he's a very wealthy man - where he wants to give something back in the worst way,'' Washington explains. ''He told me, 'Hank, I want someone to fairly help the workers of America.' ''
As a candidate, Taylor paints himself as a ''straight shooter'' and ''proven economic patriot'' who would champion American workers by creating jobs and lowering trade barriers overseas. He pledges to cut taxes and government spending, and prides himself on not using ''a dime'' of taxpayer money for his campaign.
Back in Ellsworth, however, residents point out that millions of taxpayer dollars are funding the cleanup of the Taylor family's industrial legacy. Contaminated soil, drums of hazardous waste, and building debris are being removed from the site, which is polluted with heavy metals such as chromium and lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), petroleum compounds and asbestos, says Bob Wagner of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The lakefront site, which residents liken to ''a bombed-out city,'' has hurt property values and limited credit and investment in the town of 400 people, says Mr. Campbell. Ellsworth now risks losing its only bank.
Taylor, his parents, and his brothers were sued for liability for the Ellsworth cleanup by the US Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan's environment department. Taylor and his family fought the suits, while blocking access to the property. In 1987, the EPA, escorted by federal marshals, removed some waste from the site.
Last April, a federal court ruled that Taylor's father and mother were liable for $900,000 in cleanup costs, but were unable to pay more than a token $1. The judge found that Taylor lacked sufficient control over the company to be liable.
Taylor denies that any contamination exists at the Ellsworth site. He charges that environmental officials fabricated the problem. ''They lied and they cheated, and what happened is they have to cover it up. The whole thing is one coverup after another,'' he says.
In Ellsworth, residents take a different view.
''This town can't go forward until the mess is cleaned up,'' says resident Bruce Chellis. ''As we see it, ethically, Morry Taylor had a choice. He could have cleaned up the family legacy. It was a choice between his ego and his integrity.''