1/29 update: LaHood announced he would be leaving USDOT. This story was first published on October 15, 2011.
While Ray LaHood today is regarded by most as one of the top Cabinet Secretaries, it’s easy to forget that his appointment as USDOT Secretary did not excite many transportation stakeholders. Words like “uninspired” and “disappointing” and “huh” were thrown around.
As it turns out, ironically, progressives who were initially disappointed with the choice have been mostly happy with LaHood’s leadership. Highway advocates who were pleased with the pick have been somewhat disappointed.
Back in 2008 Ryan Avent noted in Grist:
“There are now two possible conclusions one can draw from the choice: either Obama doesn’t intend the DOT secretary to do the heavy lifting on his transportation policies or he doesn’t really care about transportation.”
Streetsblog – which today is among LaHood’s biggest fans – initially called LaHood a “Transportation Secretary Who’s Hard to Believe In.” It seems impossible today to believe these words could have been written about LaHood (emphasis mine):
The selection of a downstate Illinois Republican with close ties to highway lobby stalwart Caterpillar Inc. is being taken by many as a clear sign that progressive transportation policy is, for now, nowhere near the top of the Obama’s agenda.
“Obama still hasn’t made the transportation – land use – climate connection,” Petra Todorovich, director of Regional Plan Association’s America 2050 program said. “It’s clear he’s thinking about these things in separate categories. . . .
Progressive transportation policy advocates are also concerned that LaHood will have trouble drawing good people to the agency. “In terms of attracting talent, no one I know is going to want to work for this guy,” said a former Federal Transit Administration official. “He’s got a horrible environmental record, he’s bad on climate change and he’s Caterpillar’s bag man. Can we get a worse appointment?” Many feel that former F.A.A. chief Jane Garvey would have been the better choice. . . .
[A Congressional staffer noted that] “LaHood is not a bold choice. He is not the transportation policy expert we were looking for. But if Obama empowers him to push a progressive agenda, that’s what we’ll be pushing in Congress.”
Down in D.C. the advocates are still hopeful. Said one: “He’s not an ideologue and he’ll probably be taking direction from good people.” Said another: This is “probably Obama’s weakest pick” but people with ties to LaHood “say he is potentially malleable.” It ain’t much, but it’s something.”
But even when LaHood was appointed there were indications of his philosophical leanings. Progressive Illinois noted:
“The moderate Republican has broken with his party over Amtrak funding, voting yes last summer to expand passenger rail service. In 2005, he told the Peoria Journal-Star that “we’ve got a good Amtrak system in Illinois and I don’t think we want to destroy it by talking about privatization.” In 2006, he received a 66 percent rating from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a major transportation construction lobby. He also voted in favor of the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act of 2008, a bill to promote increased public transportation use that garnered string bi-partisan support. Other than that, we know very little.”
None of this is meant to criticize the writers or websites referenced. It’s just to say that we can’t be entirely sure how a Cabinet Secretary appointment will play out.
Flash forward to today to this observation from Streetsblog:
“ LaHood’s support for bicycling has continued to blossom as his tenure as secretary has gone on. From the tabletop speech to his declaration of “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized” to last weekend’s affirmation of rail-trails as good health care policy, LaHood has been the darling of the biking community. He’s also been a high-profile advocate for the TIGER program and high-speed rail, as well as countless active transportation initiatives like Walk to School Day, and bike sharing” (“Ray LaHood Won’t Stay at USDOT Past 2012”, Streetsblog)
LaHood was elected to Congress in the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 although he was one of only three Republicans who did not sign the “Contract with America”. That turned out to foreshadow a mostly centrist voting record. During his Congressional career LaHood developed a close relationship with two important Chicagoans: Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel.