Republican Ray LaHood to run Transportation. Who?

Obama follows through on his bipartisan pledge by picking a somewhat obscure Republican congressman for Secretary of Transportation.

By Gabriel Winant
Published December 18, 2008 3:58AM (EST)

Barack Obama promised a bipartisan Cabinet, and now he’s delivering. Multiple reports have him offering the position of Secretary of Transportation to outgoing Illinois Congressman Ray LaHood, a Republican.

LaHood, first elected in 1994, has a reputation as a moderate and a sometime ally of public transit. At Progress Illinois, Adam Doster writes that LaHood has voted to increase funding for Amtrak and opposed privatizing rail lines, even if he hasn’t exactly been a leader on the issue. Though his district is one of the more rural in the state, covering much of the farmland of western and central Illinois, Amtrak does makes a stop in Springfield, which lies partly in the 18th.

On the other hand, LaHood is best known for helping to run the GOP’s impeachment effort against Bill Clinton in the House of Representatives. For the few who think of anything at all when they hear the name Ray LaHood, that’s probably the first thing to come to mind. (Even Ray LaHood thinks Ray LaHood is kind of obscure. In 2005, he considered running against Rod Blagojevich for governor of Illinois, but decided not enough people outside his own district knew who he was.)

Though LaHood is the second Republican Obama has appointed to the Cabinet, both have been for traditional cross-party spots. Robert Gates follows Bill Clinton defense secretary William Cohen as a Republican hired to run the Pentagon for a Democrat. And George W. Bush’s first Secretary of Transportation was his Cabinet’s token Democrat, Norm Mineta, who’d been Clinton’s commerce secretary. The joke back then was that Transportation was a backwater job, and a demotion for Mineta -- hence perfect for the obligatory bipartisan pick.

Eight years later, Obama is set to propose a massive infrastructure spending plan, suggesting that the Transportation job ought to matter a bit more. Either that or, as Ryan Avent suggests at Grist, Obama wants a Republican token, but doesn’t plan to run his transportation agenda through LaHood’s bureaucracy.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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