As transportation secretary, Republican LaHood travels well


President-elect Barack Obama made good on his promise to include the opposition in his cabinet. Democratic and Republican insiders confirmed on Wednesday afternoon that Republican Rep. Ray LaHood will be nominated as the next Secretary of Transportation. While LaHood is seen as a moderate Republican with a strong bipartisan record, his record on transportation issues is scant.

I cast the first ballot of my life for the Republican congressman, a native of my hometown, Peoria, Ill., 10 years ago; he was then and still is a very popular Republican. The reaction of some of his former constituents — residents of Central Illinois — was positive as news spreads of his new job. Progressive and conservative political junkies agreed: LaHood is pragmatic and generally well liked.

LaHood has had a close working relationship with Obama, and especially with Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel. “Rahm Emanuel and I are very good friends,” he told the Galesburg Register Mail last week. “He and I had six or seven bipartisan dinners this year that I invited some Republicans and he invited some Democrats… Sen. Obama and I worked very closely together when we were putting the transportation bill together a couple of years ago… I think I have a great relationship with both of them.”

One relationship that might be strained around the cabinet table is with Secretary of State-to-be Hillary Clinton. LaHood was selected by the U.S. House to preside over the impeachment hearings of President Bill Clinton, mainly because of the trust he engendered in both parties. But he voted for all four articles of impeachment. Perhaps ten years is enough time to let bygones be bygones, but the figures that loomed large in one of America’s tawdriest times will likely be sharing a table in Obama’s administration.

While much more conservative than his Obama-cabinet contemporaries, he has been a staunch supporter of federal funding for Amtrak and is generally friendly to public transit.

“I think if we’re going to have a pot of money where we subsidize airlines and we subsidize the funding of highways, that we certainly ought to continue to subsidize Amtrak,” LaHood told a local paper in 2004.

LaHood voted with the Democrats to expand Amtrak over the objections of Bush and House Republicans in 2007. And it wasn’t the first time LaHood has bucked his party.

Notably, he rebuffed Sarah Palin’s racially charged campaign rallies saying that they didn’t “befit the office that she’s running for.” (LaHood’s parents were Lebanese and Jordanian, and as few outside Peoria know, a large number of Lebanese Christians settled in the Illinois River valley in the 1890s to avoid religious persecution).

Although he was first elected during Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994, he refused to sign the “Contract with America.” He did not agree that cutting taxes during a time of high deficits was a sound idea.

What little is known about about his transportation policies is fairly moderate in nature.

In 2005, he told the Peoria Journal-Star he opposed turning public transit over to private entities. “We’ve got a good Amtrak system in Illinois and I don’t think we want to destroy it by talking about privatization.”

He voted for the bipartisan Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act of 2008 that promotes public transit and earlier this year he sponsored the Commuter Act which offers tax breaks to public transit commuters similar to the breaks already afforded to automobile commuters. He bucked Republicans and voted for the Big Three automakers bailout last week as well.

But transit supporters have expressed concern over his statements on high-speed rail: “I think it’s a bad idea, mainly because we don’t have the money to fund the routes that currently serve Illinois,” he said in 2004. Illinois at the time faced a $3.6 billion budget deficit. “I don’t think we can afford at this point, with the kind of deficits we’re running.”

As the old saying goes, “Will it play in Peoria?” Residents there, both Democrats and Republicans, find Obama’s pick a pragmatic one.

For a liberal take on LaHood, DailyKos is probably the best place to gauge opinion… and most commenters there are irate that Obama picked a Republican. But those who know LaHood and live in his district share little of that outrage.

“Though I haven’t ever voted for him because of his party affiliation, I think he’s generally been a fairly effective representative and about as good a Congressman as I could get in this strongly Republican Central Illinois district,” wrote contributor modemocrat. “In the times I’ve met him I’ve found him to be a fairly good guy, especially as Illinois politicians go.”

Modemocrats continued, “And I have to admit as an Illinoisan, as a Downstate Illinoisan, I’m delighted by this pick. Not just for regional pride but because I feel like my interests as an Illinoisan will be well-served while at the same time I don’t have to worry so much about political fallout for Obama that would come from him appointing some Chicago Democrat with shady connections or questionable dealings.”

For a take from a local conservative, I gave my mother a call. After years of sparring with her over politics, I know of no one more thoughtful — or more conservative — than Kathy Birkey.

“I’m very conservative. I’m a ‘dittohead’ and you can quote me on that,” she says joking about her taste for conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.

She says Obama made a good pick. “I think he is hard working, he’s honest, and I think he’s very fair,” she says of LaHood. “He’s a little more moderate than I prefer and he has disagreed with me many times.” But he is bipartisan, she says.

“He’d rather build bridges than die for ideology.”

Obama’s done okay with his cabinet selections so far, she adds.

“LaHood’s a little more middle of the road like the others Obama has selected. I’m impressed with it and I’m going to wait and see what happens.”