Obama taps LaHood as U.S. Transportation Secretary

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President-Elect Barack Obama today, Dec. 19, named U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois as his choice for the next U.S. Transportation Secretary. If approved by the Senate, LaHood, 63, would succeed Secretary Mary Peters, who has served since 2006.

“I said I was committed to finding the best person for the job regardless of party,” said Obama, who with LaHood fulfilled a campaign promise to name a Republican to his Cabinet. Obama said LaHood has “fought to improve mass transit and our highways.”

The career of the seven-term Republican from Peoria spans a wide range of transportation modes and issues. He has known Obama for more than a decade and is close to Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who will serve as the new White House chief of staff.

While serving on the House Appropriations Committee, the panel that oversees federal discretionary spending, LaHood gained a reputation for working across party lines. He was ranking member of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, and also a member of the Subcommittee on Agricultural, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies.

“Congressman LaHood’s broad experience and well-known pragmatism make him an excellent choice to lead and support America’s transportation future,” Peters said of her successor. “There will be challenges, but there are also incredible opportunities to continue work to improve transportation safety, tackle congestion and promote mobility, expand global transportation opportunities, rebuild transportation systems after disasters, and continue fundamental transportation reform. I’m confident our nation’s transportation network will be in good hands under the leadership of Congressman LaHood.”

Since his first election to Congress in 1994, agriculture has been one of LaHood’s top priorities. He has been a staunch advocate of ethanol, supporting policies expanding ethanol production in Illinois. In 2005, the Illinois Farm Bureau awarded LaHood its highest honor, the Charles B. Shuman Distinguished Service Award.

Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, says that during LaHood’s career in Congress, he has sought to bring civility and bipartisanship to the House and has earned a well-deserved reputation as a leader who has worked with both sides of the aisle. “It was this approach that led Representative LaHood to break from his own leadership and stand with transportation workers on a number of important issues,” Wytkind says.

“Our transportation system and its workers face daunting challenges,” Wytkind says. “Chronic underinvestment in our transportation infrastructure must be reversed; the rights of workers must be restored and strengthened; trade policies affecting our industry must protect American jobs; and long overdue safety and security improvements must be implemented. President-elect Obama has vowed to take on these challenges and to embark on an unprecedented effort to put people back to work and rebuild our nation’s decaying infrastructure.”

The American Trucking Associations says it has worked with LaHood throughout his career, including during his service as a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and as an appropriator. Most notably for trucking, LaHood led efforts to enhance Illinois’ infrastructure; he helped secure funds to improve local highways, including the reconstruction of Interstate 74 in Peoria, expansion of U.S. Route 67 and the completion of Route 336.

After serving in the Illinois State House of Representatives in 1982, LaHood worked for U.S. House Republican Leader Bob Michel as district administrative assistant and, for four years, as chief of staff. He succeeded Michel upon his retirement in January 1995.

“The appointment of Ray LaHood should speak well for Illinois and the trucking industry in particular, as he has always had an open mind on truck issues,” says Don Schaefer of the Mid-West Truckers Association. “President-elect Obama has stressed the importance of the nation’s infrastructure as one component of improving the nation’s economy.”

LaHood, born Dec. 6, 1945, is the grandson of an immigrant from Lebanon and the son of a restaurant manager. He worked his way through Spalding Institute high school, Canton Junior College and Bradley University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in education and sociology from Bradley in 1971.