Peoria’s Ray LaHood, 67, Republican congressman for 14 years, told me in a telephone interview from DC that it was his choice to leave Obama’s cabinet. Speculation was rampant that even though LaHood was the only Republican currently serving in the Obama cabinet, the President was coaxing him toward the door so he could appoint a minority and/or woman to the spot.
I spoke to LaHood by telephone from DC within hours of the AP breaking the news of his departure. Here’s the an edited, condensed transcript of our conversation.
CF: Did you want to leave or were you pushed?
RL: About a week after the election, I met with the President. I told him that I thought it was time to move on…. He asked me if I would stay on. In the end I decided after talking it over with my wife of 45 years that it was a good time to leave.
CF: So are you out the door next week?
RL: No, I’ll be around until whoever the nominee is is confirmed by Senate.
CF: So who’s the nominee? I’ve heard former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm I’ve even heard Sen. Richard Durbin, trading in his US Senate seat for a seat in the President’s cabinet. Did the President ask you for a recommendation on who should succeed you?
RL: No, he didn’t ask me. I don’t have a list of names. The President is working his way through positions—State, Defense, CIA. He’ll get around to transportation.
CF: So what are you going to do next? Consulting? Do you hope to eventually lobby?
RL: I have no idea. When I walk out of here, I hope the phone starts ringing with some opportunities for future endeavors. I don’t have the slightest idea what opportunities are out there.
CF: Do you return to Peoria or stay in DC?
RL: Peoria is my main residence. We have a home in Peoria. Peoria is always home. Five grandchildren there. [10 total.] I have a little apt in DC I bought when I came to Congress. My wife and live there, but I’ll spend more time in Peoria.
CF: Can you imagine yourself running for elective office, perhaps in 2014 were Durbin to retire, or 2016 were Mark Kirk to retire?
RL: I don’t intend to run for elective office. 14 years in congress and 17 years as congressional staffer is enough.
CF: More important question. Are you still a Republican?
RL: I am a Republican. I voted in the Republican primary, but I didn’t vote in the presidential race. In the general election, I voted for President Obama.
CF: Do you feel that you’ll be leaving on a kind of negative note as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is grounded by the FAA after you earlier declared the 787 totally safe? Is it equivalent to Hillary Clinton leaving the cabinet with Benghazi hanging over her legacy?
RL: No, I have a list of accomplishments, a long safety agenda in airlines and autos… high-speed rail, a streetcar program around the country, airline passenger bill of rights. We put transportation issues out front in a way never done before. I think for the first time people can remember who the Secretary of Transportation is.
CF: You are often described as a personal friend of Rahm Emanuel’s; how did that get going?
RL: Rahm and I got to be friends when he and I were in congress; began to host these dinners. I would invite seven or eight Republicans and he seven or eight Democrats once a month. Rahm and I built a wonderful friendship. I cherish my relationship with him. It’s one of those enduring friendships because of our mutual interest in getting things done for Illinois when in Congress and for the country when we served together in the Obama White House. I talked with Rahm a couple times a week. When he and Amy were here for the inauguration the four of us got together. Rahm is one of my best friends.
CF: Do you think one of the people who might call you after you leave the Cabinet will be Rahm asking you to do something in his administration?
RL: I don’t see myself working in the city administration. We’ve never talked about that.
CF: So you were at Rahm’s 11 pm-3 am inauguration party?
RL: It was the most sought after ticket in Washington…. No more fun place to be I arrived at 11:45 and left at 12:15. I don’t stay out late. Rahm stayed until the end.
CF: Will you be involved in the upcoming Governor’s race? Will you support one of the Democrats, say Bill Daley or Lisa Madigan, or Republican Aaron Schock?
RL: The only political activity I’ll be involved in is whatever my son, Republican Illinois state senator Darin LaHood, is doing.
CF: How’s your son Sam doing? [Facing arrest and imprisonment while working for an NGO in Egypt a year ago, he sought refuge in the American embassy in Cairo.]
RL: He’s in Thailand, still working for the IRI [International Republican Institute]. He and his wife just had a baby and no, he’ll never go back to Egypt.
CF: What stands out about cabinet meetings. Any anecdotes, funny stories, angry exchanges?
RL: Cabinet meetings, run by the President, were pretty nondescript. Everything is set by the agenda. Almost every cabinet meeting during the first two years was about the economic recovery.
CF: Who were you closest to in the cabinet?
RL: Vice President Biden. I think he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, a great team player and partner.
CF: Did you have a relationship with Barack Obama when he and you overlapped in the Congress?
RL: When he was still a state senator, just elected to the U.S. Senate, just a few days after the election, he called me on my cell phone. “Ray, I’m coming to Peoria, I’d like to sit down and work together.” He hadn’t been sworn in yet. Came to my Congressional office, met for 90 minutes. I say that bipartisanship is in his DNA. I‘ve experienced personally, not only while I was in his cabinet but when I was a Republican from Peoria, 140 miles from Chicago. I really believe the President talks about bipartisanship not as a political maneuver but because he believes in it.
CF: What do you miss about Congress?
RL: Nothing…. At DOT we have a team of people and we’ve gotten a lot done…. I miss nothing about Congress. I don’t miss Congress for one minute. I miss some of the people there, but that’s it.