LaHood’s relentless campaign against distracted driving, his safety-first mantra and his determination to visit every state in the union gave the Peoria native a higher profile than several predecessors in the role, traditionally played out in the shadow of more glamorous Cabinet jobs.
LaHood made the announcement in a statement Tuesday: “I have let President Obama know that I will not serve a second term as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. It has been an honor and a privilege to lead the Department, and I am grateful to President Obama for giving me such an extraordinary opportunity.”
There was no immediate word from the White House on who would replace him, but the fact that LaHood held off any announcement during a period when other second-term Cabinet appointments were being announced hinted that an active search may have been underway.
The rumor mill was rife with suggestions, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, who made a name for himself by rebuilding that city’s transit system; former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell; National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman; and James L. Oberstar, the former Minnesota congressman who once chaired the House transportation committee.
But the transportation job has often defied Beltway gossip, most recently with the selection of LaHood and, during the administration of President George W. Bush with the appointment of Norman Y. Mineta, a Californian who served as a Democrat in Congress.
LaHood, in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, acknowledged publicly what he had been telling friends privately for some time, saying that he was “conflicted” because he loved his job, “the best job I’ve ever had in public service.” He said he told Obama a week after the election that he thought he needed to move on.
LaHood said he would remain until a successor is confirmed by the Senate. If Obama nominates a successor shortly, that would be a few months.
Obama in a statement thanked LaHood “for his dedication, his hard work, and his years of service to the American people.”
“I also want to thank Ray for his friendship,” Obama said.
The two men came to know one another as Obama rose to become an Illinois senator while LaHood served as a Republican in Congress.
“Years ago, we were drawn together by a shared belief that those of us in public service owe an allegiance not to party or faction, but to the people we were elected to represent,” Obama said. “And every American who travels by air, rail or highway can thank Ray for his commitment to making our entire transportation system safer and stronger.”