Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is charging ahead in his political career

LaHood -- the man from Peoria, Ill. -- uses social media to raise the profile of his agency's causes, bringing particular attention to the problem of distracted driving.
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

There is a pause to ponder in almost every interview, a hiccup in the stream of words, a groping for just the right phrase, and then it emerges: "With Ray, what you see is what you get."

He has worked for three decades in Washington, capital of spin, of parsing, of nuance, of cunning, of backstabbing intrigue, where half-truths are too common to refute and many a flat-out lie goes without rebuke.

Amid all of that, Ray LaHood, the most out-there secretary of transportation in history, is that rare mammal in modern Washington: a regular guy. He says what he thinks, does what he says and clearly loves what he's doing.

Were he 34 instead of 64, he'd be pegged as an overachiever bubbling with ambition to catapult himself onto the national ticket. But these days he has more grandchildren than political ambition, and his politics -- conservative but pragmatic, savvy but civil -- aren't fashionable in the polarized savagery of the national debate.

So how did LaHood transform what Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" called the "least glamorous" Cabinet position into hobnobbing with Jordin Sparks and Oprah Winfrey?

"Lookit," he says with a shrug, "the president asked me to do a job, so I'm doing it."

Doing the job has meant globe-trotting to check out trains in China and Toyotas in Japan and to have meetings in Moscow. At home there are just two kinds of states: those where he's been to spread his gospel of safety and to inspect transportation systems, and those states that he plans to visit soon.

But his public face plays most frequently against a backdrop of Washington: The Potomac is his setting to denounce drunken driving; there he is outside a D.C. police station to plead for safe holiday-season driving; he's surrounded by local cops while pushing the "click-it-or-ticket" campaign; he's joining high school students in Union Station who pledge not to text behind the wheel; and he's standing on a table at a Capitol Hill gathering of cyclists to emphasize that federal transportation policy now includes pedal pushers.

Coming after a long line of relative "who-dats," LaHood has more than 3,300 Facebook fans, more than 6,000 Twitter followers, and his blog gets more than 40,000 hits a week, second only to President Obama in federal blogdom.

And he has used every one of those cyberlinks to tell Americans that -- whether they're driving planes, trains or automobiles -- it's time to put down the cellphone and pay attention. In his self-described "rampage" against distracted driving, he has enlisted Sparks, Winfrey and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. "Ray's a rock star," says Missi Tessier, a colleague from his Capitol Hill days. "Normally, it's the other Cabinet members who have a much higher profile."

His own drive

Cabinet stardom can land in your lap: Tim Geithner got the swooning economy; Ken Salazar got the bubbling crude. LaHood got billions in stimulus money to dole out and Mr. Toyoda's sticky gas pedals.

But, mostly, LaHood's own drive has elevated him from obscurity at the far end of the Cabinet table. He championed high-speed rail projects, has been point man for the administration's advocacy of "livable communities" with low carbon footprints and passed out "cash for clunkers."

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