As he departs the Obama administration after four years, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, currently the lone Republican in the cabinet will leave behind an eclectic legacy as a champion of highway and bridge reconstruction, high-speed rail, tougher fuel efficiency and a superabundance of urban bike paths.
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The affable former House member from Illinois may also go down in history as the only high-ranking government official to ever be described as a “run-of-the-mill hipster.” That’s what Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein called LaHood to his face after listening to the transportation secretary opine that “bikers have as much right to the streets as anybody driving a car and I am concerned about [their safety]."
“I don’t even know what that term [hipster] means,” LaHood replied during the May 2011 interview.
LaHood, 67, has been one of the more visible members of President Obama’s cabinet, in part because of his gregarious personality and his role as an ardent and vocal advocate for the nation’s highways and infrastructure. He has been a strong promoter of airline safety and passenger rights, and took a tough line on auto safety during Toyota’s massive recalls in 2010.
He recently ordered United Airlines to ground its Boeing 787 Dreamliner following mishaps with the aircraft’s batteries. The FAA is investigating the cause of the problems to the Dreamliner, which uses lithium ion batteries and is the world’s first airliner whose structure is made mostly from lightweight composite materials.
LaHood had very limited experience in transportation policy before Obama, a fellow Illinoisan, picked him for the job. He was quoted in The New York Times at the time as saying, “They picked me because of the bipartisan thing and the congressional thing, and the friendship thing.”
Under his watch, the Transportation Department demanded tougher fuel efficiency requirements for automakers and took steps to address airline pilot fatigue. LaHood said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he told Obama a week after the November election that he needed to move on but said he was still “conflicted” by his decision because he liked working for Obama and considered it the “best job I've ever had in public service.”
The White House confirmed on Tuesday that LaHood was leaving. Obama issued a statement thanking LaHood for his years of service to the country and for his long-standing friendship. “Years ago, we were drawn together by a shared belief that those of us in public service owe an allegiance not to party or faction, but to the people we were elected to represent,” Obama said. “Under [LaHood’s] leadership, we have made significant investments in our passenger rail system and laid the groundwork for the high-speed rail network of the future. And every American who travels by air, rail or highway can thank Ray for his commitment to making our entire transportation system safer and stronger.”
The Transportation Department has boasted a bipartisan sheen in recent years and been the place for a president to ask a member of the opposing party to serve. Former Rep. Norman Mineta, a California Democrat, served as transportation secretary during the Republican administration of President George W. Bush.
While LaHood, for now, is the only Republican in the Obama cabinet, the president nominated former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, to serve as defense secretary to succeed Leon E. Panetta. But Hagel is facing tough confirmation hearings in the Senate.
Possible replacements for LaHood include Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has pushed for increased rail service in Los Angeles and served as chairman of last year's Democratic National Convention, and Debbie Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, according to the AP. The name of former Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, who led the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has also been mentioned.