Obama Chooses GOP's Ray LaHood as Transportation Nominee, Officials Say

Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D), front, and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) arrive at a news conference where President-elect Barack Obama announced them as his picks to be secretaries of agriculture and interior, respectively.
Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D), front, and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) arrive at a news conference where President-elect Barack Obama announced them as his picks to be secretaries of agriculture and interior, respectively. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
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By Michael A. Fletcher and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 18, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama plans to nominate Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) to become transportation secretary, adding a second Republican to a key position in his administration, according to senior Democratic officials.

LaHood, 63, who is retiring after representing a rural downstate Illinois district in Congress since 1995, would play a major role in overseeing the huge public works program the administration plans to implement to stimulate the flagging economy. Obama earlier tapped another Republican, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has agreed to stay on after serving in the same role in the Bush administration. The president-elect has said repeatedly that he wants to include several Republicans in the top rungs of his administration in an effort to get beyond the partisan bickering that often paralyzes Washington policymaking.

As transportation secretary, LaHood would be in a charge of an agency that oversees much of the nation's roads and rails, as well as its air traffic control system. He would also be a critical figure in the administration's two-year economic stimulus plan, which Obama has said would include hundreds of billons of dollars to repair and build roads and bridges and update and expand the nation's mass-transit systems.

Kenneth P. Quinn, a former Federal Aviation Administration chief counsel who now is a partner at the Pillsbury law firm, hailed LaHood as an "outstanding bipartisan pick for the new president."

"But he's going to be facing extremely daunting challenges in the industry, particularly in aviation, to restore badly strained labor-management relations at the FAA," Quinn said. "At the same time, he'll have to effectively modernize our air traffic control system and deal with very pressing competition and congestion problems."

The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, LaHood grew up in Peoria, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree from Bradley University. He taught junior high in Catholic schools and later was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. He also served as an aide in the U.S. House, rising to chief of staff to then-Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.).

LaHood was elected to Congress in the 1994 Republican Revolution and has developed a centrist voting record and a reputation as a deficit hawk. He was one of only three Republicans who did not sign then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America." And he developed a measure of national fame when he presided over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

In recent years, LaHood developed a close relationship with Obama, becoming a key player on the House Appropriations Committee on behalf of the Illinois delegation. A moderate Republican, LaHood has not shied away from criticizing the Bush administration and has a reputation for working with leaders of both parties. But he was an enthusiastic supporter of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the presidential contest.

During an Oct. 3 speech on the floor of the House, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who will be Obama's chief of staff, praised LaHood as someone the framers of the Constitution would have "had in their mind's eye" when they "thought of a member of Congress."

"He is an individual who, while firm in his principles, was very flexible about his opinions," he added.

As he works to round out his Cabinet, Obama yesterday nominated Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) as interior secretary and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D) to be agriculture secretary, adding two centrists with considerable experience to his governing team.

Speaking at a Chicago news conference, Obama said his administration's policies at the Agriculture and Interior departments would be "designed to serve not big agribusiness or Washington influence-peddlers but family farmers and the American people."

He said Vilsack "understands that the solution to our energy crisis will be found not in oil fields abroad but in our farm fields here at home."

Vilsack's nomination was greeted positively, both by environmental activists and the food industry.

Obama said the Interior Department has been "deeply troubled" under the Bush administration and "too often has been seen as an appendage of commercial interests as opposed to a place where the values and interests of the American people are served." He said he wants a "more proactive Interior Department," rather than one "that sees its job as simply sitting back waiting for whoever has [the] most access in Washington to extract what they want."

"I also want an Interior Department that, very frankly, cleans up its act," Obama said. "There have been too many problems and too much emphasis on big-time lobbyists in Washington and not enough emphasis on what's good for the American people, and that's going to change under Ken Salazar."

Staff writers Paul Kane and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

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