Growth Issue for Democrats, Iacocca Says

Times Staff Writer

Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee A. Iacocca, speaking as one who has engineered a dramatic turnaround of his own, told more than 130 House Democrats on Saturday that political success lies in borrowing a cause from Republicans.

“I believe they are losing their grip on this (economic) growth issue, and it’s yours to grab,” Iacocca, a registered Republican, told the House Democratic Caucus. He said the Administration was letting its military buildup and its free trade ideology take precedence over the growing problems of record budget and trade deficits, which threaten to choke off the economic recovery.

The Democrats are conducting a retreat--the political equivalent of an encounter group session--this weekend at the luxurious Greenbrier resort here.

Criticized Deficits


For Iacocca, speaking one day after the Reagan Administration announced it would allow expanded Japanese auto imports, the session also offered an opportunity to criticize the budget and trade deficits that have ballooned during the last four years.

He contended that the Administration is “stacking up missiles against our enemy,” the Soviet Union, while ignoring a greater economic danger posed by “our friend,” Japan.

The speech outraged Japanese-American Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento).

“He’s a racist. There’s no other way to describe Iacocca,” Matsui charged. “The auto industry should be able to survive on its own. He’s going back and picking up ‘yellow peril,’ ” the cry of those who tried to restrict early Asian immigration to the United States.


Closed to Media

Like almost all of the conference events, Iacocca’s speech was closed to the media. However, it could be overheard in a hallway outside the meeting room.

The lineup of speakers for the Democratic “issues conference” included heavy representation from such corporate--and Republican--bastions as Wall Street, Madison Avenue and the Silicon Valley.

“I think the Democrats are more willing to listen to businessmen than they used to be in terms of developing their economic policies,” said Robert Hormats, a vice president of the brokerage Goldman Sachs & Co. and a participant in one of the conference workshops.

Gergen to Speak

And while representatives of such traditional Democratic constituencies as organized labor were noticeably absent from the conference agenda, David Gergen, the Reagan Administration’s former communications director, was scheduled to speak today on “communications and politics.”

Each Democrat paid $400 for himself or herself and family to attend the conference. The remaining 60% of the estimated $170,000 cost of the three-day event was paid by the National Legislative Educational Foundation, which is funded by corporations, labor unions and lobbying organizations.