Clinton Ally Affords Pipeline to Oval Office
By Don Phillips
The elevation of Rodney E. Slater from federal highway administrator to transportation secretary gives the department something it did not have for the four years of Federico Pen~a's administration a pipeline directly to the Oval Office.
Slater became an ally of Bill Clinton back in the early days in Arkansas when the White House was just a dream. For more than 15 years, Slater has been involved in Clinton campaigns and served in official positions in Clinton administrations in Arkansas and Washington.
Few people can claim such ready access to the president, the kind of access enjoyed by secretaries Samuel K. Skinner in the Bush administration and Drew Lewis in the Reagan administration.
Now the question becomes whether he can translate that access and loyalty into action during four years in which his department will be in the thick of important decisions affecting highways, airline and railroads.
There was almost a unanimous chorus from the transportation community and Congress that said the answer was "yes." Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, called the choice "a natural." Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), ranking minority member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called him "a terrific choice." Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works transportation subcommittee, called Slater "an effective partner with Congress."
Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), the face Slater is likely to see more often than any other on Capitol Hill, said he considers Slater "a good friend" who has the president's ear and can work well with both parties.
Industry groups uniformly praised Slater. The only negative note came from consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who said Slater's appointment is a "disservice" to Americans who deserve someone with a greater commitment to safety. Nader is critical of Slater for promoting the National Highway System, an upgrade of the interstate system that Nader insists will merely lead to more highway fatalities. He called Slater "basically a complete tool of the trucking and auto industries."
Slater will face the perennial problems of modernizing the aviation system and how to provide enough money to keep Amtrak running. But his skill will be put to an early test in the area with which he is most familiar highways.
Early in 1997, Congress will begin drafting a five-year highway-transit bill, reauthorizing the revolutionary 1990 "iced tea" bill shorthand for the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). That bill attempted to strike a balance between highway building, transit and other transportation forms, including bicycles and trails.
Slater will be lobbied by numerous interests, ranging from highway builders who believe the nation's highway system has been shortchanged to those who believe there are too many highways. "Donor" states, which send more gas tax money to Washington than they receive from Washington, will launch a battle to change distribution formulas.
This battle will be fought out in a climate of shrinking budgets. The White House Office of Management and Budget seems to be winning the battle to cut transportation spending in the fiscal 1998 budget, federal sources said.
Hank Dittmar, executive director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, said Slater had come to Washington as a traditional highway-oriented state official, but "he has been very open to learning." Dittmar, whose group has played a key role in persuading Congress to spend more on non-highway transportation alternatives, said, "We have actually had a good relationship with Rodney."
Slater, 41, became an assistant attorney general in Arkansas in 1980, beginning a close relationship with Clinton. He was an assistant to then-governor Clinton from 1983 to 1987.
Throughout the 1980s, Clinton used Slater to solicit votes in the Arkansas black community, an effort that became controversial after it surfaced in the investigation of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. A fellow black fund-raiser in Arkansas, Carol Willis, was questioned by Starr's office about large amounts of cash that were distributed in the black community in Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial campaign.
After five years as director of governmental relations for Arkansas State University, Slater served on the Arkansas State Highway Commission, and was its chairman in 1992 and 1993.
In 1992, he was deputy campaign manager of the Clinton presidential campaign, traveling with the candidate constantly. Some campaign workers said Slater was good at calming Clinton when he occasionally became frustrated and hyper on the campaign trail.
He came to Washington with Clinton as head of the Federal Highway Administration, where he managed a $20 billion annual budget in an agency with 3,500 employees and an office in every state. He impressed insiders with his ability to work with others, including local officials and members of Congress, and to work within the system to get things done.
Slater was criticized early this year for his frequent travels around the country at government expense. The House Appropriations Committee cited him for 48 trips in 1995. The Transportation Department responded that Slater was merely doing his job by becoming familiar with projects that receive a lot of federal money.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company