Thoughts on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s One-Term Announcement
(See update below)
It’s common for Cabinet secretaries to leave a presidential administration after the first term, so Ray LaHood’s announcement today that he will leave his post as Transportation Secretary in 2013 should not be a surprise. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
Many transportation advocates were skeptical, to put it mildly, in late 2008 when Barack Obama tapped this largely unknown Republican Congressman to head the Department of Transportation. Nobody had him on their short lists. Obama’s victory was a crucial moment for sustainable transportation to get funding and policy preferences that it had long been lacking, and we rightly did not want this key post to go to waste. New York City transportation chief Janette Sadik-Kahn was a popular pick for the office, and few of us knew what to make of LaHood.
Not only were our fears unfounded – LaHood has turned out to be one of the best picks Obama made for any of his Cabinet level offices. Secretary LaHood has been the kind of reliable, steady, persistent champion of bikes, pedestrians, and passenger rail – including high speed rail – that we needed and wanted. LaHood has never once flinched in the face of the barrage of right-wing attacks on HSR, and has never once shown an inclination to cave when specific projects were criticized.
When teabagger governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida turned against HSR projects and demanded they be allowed to use the federal HSR grants they’d received for those projects, LaHood was clear that it wasn’t an option, and redirected those funds to states like California, Washington, and New York where political leaders still understood the value of HSR.
In California, LaHood has remained one of the HSR project’s most important and effective champions. He has steered over $4 billion in federal funds to our project. He helped direct the choice of the Central Valley segment from Fresno to Bakersfield as the site of initial construction (owing to the easier and lower construction costs and the higher unemployment in the Valley). And he has not once backed away from those decisions no matter how many NIMBYs and HSR deniers try to get him and the White House to do so.
Just last month LaHood, speaking in Oakland after a long meeting with Governor Jerry Brown, mounted a strong defense of the California HSR project:
Now this isn’t an obituary; LaHood has over a year left as Transportation Secretary to continue his good work on behalf of smart transportation choices. It appears the White House is pleased with his work, since they haven’t asked him to back down from his pro-transit positions. Of course, one important question is whether the Obama Administration’s strongly pro-HSR position comes from the very top or whether LaHood was instrumental in pushing it. There was plenty of evidence during the 2008 campaign that Obama was genuine in his support of HSR, which means LaHood’s successor likely will be as well.
Which raises the question of who exactly that successor should be. Let’s start floating some names:
• JSK. Sadik-Kahn has probably done about all she can do in NYC. It’s a natural move for her to go to Washington, DC and carry on LaHood’s policies with a supportive president – and hopefully with a Democratic Congress as well. (I know some people don’t like it when I get partisan, but it is a fact of life that Congressional Republicans hate passenger rail. LaHood appears to have been one of the very few exceptions.) There would be no doubt of her strength on sustainable transportation issues. I’d tab her as the front-runner right now.
• Jim Oberstar. He represented Minnesota in the House for over 35 years when he narrowly lost the 2010 election to a teabagger. Oberstar was responsible for drafting the revolutionary House version of the Transportation Bill reauthorization which had tons of funding for sustainable transportation. He also strongly backed proposals to put $50 billion for HSR funding in that bill. There’s been no evidence of Oberstar seeking a rematch in 2012, so he’d be available and a well-qualified person to continue fighting for smart transportation choices in DC.
• Earl Blumenauer. He represents Portland in Congress, and is another prominent advocate for rail and transit choices, biking to work on Capitol Hill. Like JSK and Oberstar there would be no doubt of Blumenauer’s willingness to fight for sustainability and high speed rail.
• R.T. Rybak. The Minneapolis mayor is, like JSK, very pro-bike and pro-rail. I had the chance to meet him at Netroots Nation in June and he was quite knowledgable about transportation policy issues. He’d be a strong choice too – and he might also be interested. Rybak has statewide ambitions, but Minnesota’s governor and both Senators are Democrats early in their terms, so they’re not in a mood to retire. Rybak will have to bide his time elsewhere, and the Obama Administration is as good a place as any to do it.
• Ed Rendell. The former Pennsylvania governor has been a champion of infrastructure spending on transportation projects. I’m less certain of where he stands on high speed rail – I know he is a supporter, but is he willing to go to the mat for it the way LaHood did?
Many of the above names came up after the 2008 election as possible candidates for the job, and I’m sure they’ll still be in circulation to succeed LaHood. Of course, Obama went with someone none of us expected and it turned out better than we could have hoped. Perhaps there is another dark horse out there? If so, speculate away in the comments!
UPDATE: Ray LaHood has an interesting quote about the reason why he is Transportation Secretary:
While some bicycling advocates might hope the president would nominate someone of similarly bike-friendly proclivities, LaHood made it clear that wasn’t why he was nominated. “I wouldn’t have this job if I wasn’t a Republican,” he said. “If I was anything else, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Did we just get really, really lucky in 2008?!