Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is charging ahead in his political career

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; B01

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."

His lasting legacy, however, may be the assault on distracted driving, and LaHood hammers on it from every angle that he and his agile staff can devise.

They've formed a MADD-like group -- Focus Driven -- persuaded Oprah Winfrey to devote an entire show and a multi-city rally to the subject, hosted a "Distracted Driving Summit," and blogged and Twittered on the subject. And they salute each state that has banned text messaging while driving.

"These are preventable deaths," he says. "We gotta do something about them."

He has also obtained restrictions on cellphone use by federal workers, banned truck drivers from texting and, after a couple of Northwest Airlines pilots flew 150 miles off course, cracked down on distracted flying.

LaHood created heartburn for highway advocates -- and caused bicyclists to nearly swoon -- when he blogged: "This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized."

The National Association of Manufacturers fired back that the policy was "dumb . . . irresponsible" and "nonsensical for a modern industrial nation."

Unfazed by the criticism, including the suggestion from a former GOP colleague in the House that he was on drugs, LaHood climbed onto a table at a convention of cyclists to reiterate his support for treating "walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes."

LaHood's bent for candor rarely gets ahead of his political acuity, but when he blunders, it's a doozy. When a House committee member asked what he would tell Toyota owners, he said, "My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it."

By the time he reeled that one back in a short while later, Toyota stock had plunged 7 percent, erasing $3 billion of the company's value.

That gaffe aside, he generally has received high marks for taking a tough stance in public with the auto giant while working the back channels with typical LaHood gentility to achieve results.

A guy from Peoria

LaHood came into the bully pulpit of a Cabinet job through the back door: He is a lifelong Republican serving a Democratic president, brought on with a nod to the bipartisanship that Obama once vowed to sustain.

Though he knew Obama because they both hail from Illinois and dote on the Chicago Bulls, his friendship is with the president's right-hand man, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. How a bare-knuckled Jewish Democrat from Chicago and an Arab American Republican from Peoria became fast friends provides a window into LaHood's personality.

Perhaps the most telling tidbit in LaHood's life is that he has resided in Washington for 30 years without once getting a haircut here. A man truly lives where he gets his haircut, and that is in Peoria.

LaHood has survived, and often thrived, in Washington as a top Capitol Hill aide, as a seven-term member of Congress and now on the Cabinet, without succumbing to the malady called Potomac fever. He is thoroughly at ease with the place, but not a prisoner of its trappings.

"He's a very good politician, but in his gut he's not a politician," says Mike Johnson, a former colleague. "He's a very dependable sort. He's a Peorian, not a Washingtonian."

'Disarming personality'

LaHood taught junior high school for six years in Peoria before gravitating to politics as an aide to Rep. Tom Railsback (R-Ill.). LaHood was appointed to the Illinois legislature, but couldn't hold onto the seat, so he became hometown aide to House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).

When Johnson stepped aside as Michel's chief of staff, LaHood came to Washington to fill the role.

"He's got a good gift for dealing with people," says Michel, who dines often with LaHood. "I don't think I know anyone who doesn't like Ray LaHood. He's got a real pleasing, disarming personality."

All of which he needed in the increasingly strident air of GOP machinations on the eve of an era that brought Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay to power.

"It was a very challenging time," Tessier says. "If you weren't a DeLay person or an Armey person, you were on the wrong side of the spectrum."

Michel, respected for his courtly manner and deft hand at the art of compromise, stood squarely in the cross hairs of the Republican Revolution. When he stepped aside in 1994, LaHood ran for the seat, one of only three GOP candidates who refused to sign the Contract With America that was the party's election manifesto.

The new Republican leadership viewed him as no better than Michel -- scorned as a Beltway insider -- and rationed LaHood's power until the day that they handed him the gavel to preside over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

In that moment of immense national tension, LaHood the teacher taught the lesson learned from his second-generation parents, his upbringing in Peoria and his stewardship under Michel.

"Ray showed that you could be civil and still be principled," says Bill Gavin, a former Michel speechwriter. "Civility is like oil in a car's engine. It doesn't run on oil, but without it, it overheats and breaks down. Ray understands civility."

Bipartisan worker

For 14 years in Congress, LaHood brought home the bacon for his district and worked quietly to bridge the partisan chasm that paralyzed the political process. He organized bipartisan retreats, worked both sides of the aisle and broke bread with Democrats.

He began to dine regularly with Emanuel, who earned the nickname "Rahmbo" for his partisan trench warfare.

"He had a very solid relationship with Rahm and, to a certain extent, with Obama," Johnson says. "They knew him well enough to know they could entrust a department to him and turn their backs and concentrate on other things."

It's a job LaHood loves because, he says, "it's so bipartisan."

His wife of more than 40 years, Kathy, thought retirement from Congress would allow for quality time, when he also would "make some money."

The Cabinet job exploded that dream, as he spends more time in the air than a lot of pilots. But the two still find time for their weekend bike rides. They both wear helmets, of course, because when it comes to safety in all matters, the man's a stickler. He plans to stay on "as long as the president wants me," and then go home because "my heart is always in Peoria."

That is, after all, where he gets his haircut. And Pam Springer, who has been cutting it for 27 years, says he "doesn't have easy hair to do because it's curly, and it does whatever it wants to."

Much like LaHood.

"He's just a regular guy," Springer says. "What you see is what you get."

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