Carol Felsenthal
On politics

A Complete Q&A with Ray LaHood

The former Peoria congressman and transportation secretary has a new law-firm job and no desire to go back to government work.

Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune

Ray LaHood, the Republican congressman from Peoria turned cabinet secretary is now out to make some money—after “35 years in public service” and four childrens’ college tuitions. The announcement that he was joining law firm DLA Piper as a senior policy adviser came a few days after I talked to him by telephone from Washington.

LaHood’s descriptions were so full of admiration for Rahm Emanuel, Pat Quinn, and Barack Obama that I had to ask him if he’s really still a Republican. He responded, as I previously reported, by endorsing Republican state treasurer Dan Rutherford in the upcoming primary for governor.

Here’s a condensed transcript of the rest of our conversation.

Are you missing being in the cabinet?

Not at all. Absolutely not. I left July 2nd. I took the summer and the fall and so I’m just enjoying life.

There must be something you miss. Right?

The opportunity to really make a difference in some of the safety programs. I would still have been on a barnstormer… about distracted driving…. And I miss some of… my cabinet colleagues, some of my colleagues at DOT, and so it’s a little bit bittersweet. There’s no permanency to any of these jobs, and we did the best that we could and I’m glad for the decision I made to move on.

It was your decision?

When I met with the President he really wanted me to stay. The President and I have a close friendship. Our friendship is not about politics; it’s about the fact that we like one another and I think the President respected the job that we did in following his vision on high-speed rail and following his vision on infrastructure and also just… stepping out on other safety programs.

What did you do in the year off [before accepting the Piper job]?

Played golf… got reacquainted with my grandkids…. I did some speaking. I signed with a speaker’s bureau. I finished a book I’d been writing with Frank Mackaman, the head of the Dirksen Congressional Research Center in Pekin. We had finished my congressional career and then suspended when I went in the cabinet, and then we finished the cabinet portion of it and it’s off to a publisher now. The publisher thinks there will be a lot of interest… in the fact that I went to work as a Republican in a Democratic administration. Should be published in the late spring.

Will it be full of revelations like the Bob Gates memoir?

One of the things that I don’t want to do is get “Gates’d,” and so it’s not a kiss and tell book. Really more about five or six important things that I was involved with in congress and my work with President Obama on three or four things.

What did you think about the Gates book? Did you think it inappropriate to publish before the President left office?

There’s probably nobody that I admired more that I served with in the cabinet than Bob Gates.  I think he’s a great patriot and great American. Like others I think the timing of the book is not a very pleasant situation to the President and for his team at the White House…. Yet listening to interviews with Gates sounds like he’s very complimentary of the President.

You have told me of your admiration and just plain liking of Vice President Biden. He seems to me to come off most damaged in the Gates book.

I think they’ve had policy differences going all the way back to the time when Vice President, then Sen. Biden, voted against funding for Vietnam…. I think Vice President Biden has been one of the strongest team players for the President, one of the strongest advisers for the President. I have found him personally to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in government…. He and I worked very closely together on infrastructure. I traveled a lot with him during the first two years when we were rolling out the stimulus and I have nothing but the highest regard for [him],  and listening again to Gates in some of the interviews it sounds like they just disagreed on policy matters. There’s no way that once you get to know Joe Biden you don’t like him.

Gates didn’t say Biden wasn’t likable; he said that he was wrong on every issue.

Obviously the President doesn’t feel that way or he wouldn’t have had him on the ticket for a second term.

In the Omnibus Budget Bill that just passed, high-speed rail took a hit.

There are a few detractors. Some of them are in leadership; Republicans in the House, like Congressman Kevin McCarthy and Jeff Denham, both from California. Denham’s the chair of the railroad subcommittee. Both of these guys have been after high-speed rail when it became President Obama’s idea. They both supported high-speed rail, voted for high-speed rail, promoted a referendum for it in California…when they were in the Assembly [in Sacramento]….

As soon as it became President Obama’s idea here in Washington, they decided to be against. They are not going to stand in the way of high-speed rail. There are private investors in California. The language in the Omnibus said… no new federal money, but the $5 billion we gave to high-speed rail to California can still be used for that.

I don’t know if you were joking, but you said that transportation secretary was not a position that you particularly had your eye on; that you could just as well have been agriculture secretary.

It wasn’t a joke. When Rahm and I spoke after the [2008] election, and obviously he and I have been friends for a long time, and it became clear that he was going to be COS, and when we spoke he said, “What do you think you’d be interested in?” I said, “For 14 years I represented 20 counties in central Illinois, almost all of it was agricultural. I know a lot about agriculture….. [W]hen I went to meet with President-elect Obama, we talked about agriculture. I could tell—they didn’t tell me but I could tell—they probably had somebody else in mind, and so he said, “are there other things you think you could do well?” And I said transportation….. I served on the transportation committee for six years…. I went in with the idea that agriculture would have been a good fit, but they had somebody else in mind.

Would you be interested in another cabinet job in another administration, maybe agriculture secretary?

I’m out of government, I’m enjoying being a private citizen, and I think that 35 years of public service has held me in good stead. I have no vision of going back into government again. I [just] turned 68. I’ve been married to my wife for 47 years this year. We have four grown children, 11 grandchildren…. I still have a home in Peoria and I have a little apartment in DC that I bought when I got elected [to Congress] in `94.  My wife is in DC…. She has a little part-time job. She’s a CPA, … so she does a little part-time work.

Your son Sam was working for a NGO—the International Republican Institute—in Cairo when he got caught in the political turmoil surrounding Tahrir Square and the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, and, with others, was charged by the interim military government with instigating anti-government protests forcing him to seek refuge in the American embassy before leaving Egypt. What’s he doing now?

Sam is in Washington. He’s in the IRI office; he likes the IRI work. He’s inhibited from traveling because of his conviction and he and his wife live in Baltimore. They have one little girl.

After Egypt they went to Cambodia…. The IRI felt it would be safe for him to go there. There’s no extradition relationship between Cambodia and Egypt…. Then he and his wife had a baby and they wanted to come back to the US. Their little girl had some health issues that needed to be taken care of at Children’s Hospital here in Washington.

Politico’s Glenn Thrush wrote about how distant Obama was from his cabinet. Did you find that the cabinet was not the beating heart of this administration?

For me, personally, I have a special relationship with the President, and that enabled me… as Secretary of Transportation to do a lot of important and significant work, like make sure that the stimulus money, $48 billion, was spent correctly, which I think the President and his team really appreciated….

I feel no distance at all from President Obama. He and I are dear friends and he used me as much as he possibly could as his transportation secretary. I never felt like I wasn’t being used to the hilt. As I said, I traveled with the Vice President a lot in the first two years and… I traveled with the President too on stimulus stuff.

Thrush was talking about the actual meetings where you sat around that table as being peripheral. 

The cabinet meetings were scripted, but that’s the way they have to be when you get all of those high-powered cabinet members around the table. There has to be an agenda…. In the first two years the agenda was about how do we get the economy moving? And so people like [Tim] Geithner and Larry Summers [dominated]…. The economy was topic number one always because it was the worst economy that anyone could ever have inherited, and so the fact that DOT wasn’t on the agenda, I wasn’t offended….

Then we were talking a lot about Afghanistan and Iraq,  and so Hillary and Gates, they’d have prominent roles in the cabinet meetings. But the cabinet meetings were good in the sense that for those of us who didn’t interact on some of these other issues, it was a good chance for us to see what people were doing and listen to their reports.

Did you take notes in those meetings?

Yes I did, and all of those notes Frank and I used in writing the book.

There’s currently a big transportation story—Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge lanes closure.  When you heard about that, what did you think?

Right at the start of my tenure at DOT, Christie and I had our own problems with the ARC Tunnel…. There was in place billions of dollars to fund a new tunnel from New Jersey to New York and he turned that money down, and so I had a number of meetings with him and tried to persuade him that that was not probably the best way to go.

Then I worked a lot with Christie on the Sandy money. A big part of the Sandy money was money for roads and bridges, to replace them…. I made a couple of trips up there and toured around with him a little bit and so anyway, I’ve had a relationship with Gov. Christie. In the beginning it was not the kind of opportunity for us to really make progress on the ARC project, but you know he got elected and so he made the decision not to accept the money.

If Christie were the Republican nominee for president, would you support him?

Well that’s the kind of hypothetical that at this point we’re so far away from that that we need to see who all the players are and all of that. But I’m a Republican and I was a delegate for John McCain. I went to the convention and I supported McCain. I did vote for President Obama against Gov. Romney [in 2012] because of my friendship with him, and I thought President Obama deserved to be reelected.

Cell phones on airplanes? As soon as news that airlines could decide to allow their use broke, I thought of you and wondered what Ray LaHood would think about that.

I think it’s a dumb idea. I think the last thing anybody wants to do is listen to somebody else’s conversation about anything. When people get on airplanes they want to read newspapers, read a book or take a nap.

When I fly now, nobody asks me to turn anything off.

Yeah, it’s nice. I just bought a couple of books [for my laptop]. I’m almost done with Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds.  I bought Double Down, and I’m just about finished with that. I’ve read Robert Caro’s book on LBJ, The Passage of Power. I read In the President’s Secret Service. Then I bought Mark Leibovich’s This Town.

The Southwest flight that landed at the wrong airport? What did you think?  That seemed so bizarre.

I don’t know what happened there. I know that when I was at DOT and the two pilots overflew Minneapolis.   And it was disclosed that they were on their laptops or something. Obviously they were distracted. You can’t have that. You just can’t, for safety reasons. Pilots have got to pay attention when they’re flying airplanes. That’s what the public expects.

When you get on an airplane, are you recognized as a former transportation secretary?

Yeah, sometimes I am. I fly United a lot because I go to Chicago, and then usually to Peoria.  They don’t cut me any slack. They treat me like everybody else. I think they feel like they have to do that.

When you’re driving [from O’Hare to Peoria], do you text?

Absolutely not. I don’t use my phone either. If I’m going to make a call I either pull off the road, or if someone calls me, I usually pull off if I’m going to answer it. Most of the time I don’t answer it.

Will  you be lobbying in your new job?

I’m not going to be a lobbyist. I made it clear to everybody that I talked to that I’m not going to be a lobbyist.

[Shortly before the Piper announcement came news that LaHood was joining as co-chair the Building America’s Future Education Fund, where he’ll be working alongside Mike Bloomberg and Ed Rendell on “aggressive advocacy and educational strategy surrounding transportation and infrastructure investments.”]

Are you in touch with Rahm Emanuel?

I had breakfast with Rahm a week ago in Chicago…. It was a friend-to-friend breakfast to get caught up. 

How’s Rahm doing as mayor? Does he have it in mind to be a Daley-type mayor who serves for many terms?

I don’t think Rahm’s going to be mayor for 20 years, but he’s certainly going to run for reelection… and he’ll get reelected. He’s very popular. He has transformed the schools; he has transformed transportation; his very first budget, 50 members on the City Council, every one of them voted for it. That’s unheard of.  He’s popular with the City Council, he’s popular with the people…. He brought the murder rate down dramatically at the end of last year…. He’s one of the, if not the, best mayors in the country right now.  He’s always thinking outside the box; he’s very creative, very innovative.

One of the best mayors, who would be another?

I certainly would have put Bloomberg in that category. Mike Bloomberg transformed New York. I also believe the mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, who I worked with very closely, is a very good mayor.  I think also Kasim Reed, the mayor of Atlanta. I think [former Los Angeles mayor] Antonio Villaraigosa was a very good mayor. Also Mayor Lee of San Francisco…. I  better mention the mayor of Peoria since that’s my hometown.

What about Rich Daley?  Do you consider him to have been a good mayor?

Absolutely, one of the best.

You’d forgive him the hated parking meter deal?

I’m not a resident of Chicago. I think when you look at his 22 years… it’s a record of extraordinary achievement. Taking the city to a level that people love going to Chicago.

I read in Politico that you used to tell Rahm Emanuel to go to hell once a week.

Somebody asked me a question at a Politico roundtable. For two years when Rahm was COS and I was Secretary, he and I talked four to five times a day. I love Rahm Emanuel, okay?  I’ll leave it at that. I love the guy.

But would you get into verbal duels with him?

Rahm and I never had a cross word.

Should President Obama have fired Kathleen Sebelius?

Oh, I ‘m not getting into that. That’s way out of my lane. Health care, HHS, I think the President has a great relationship with Kathleen, and I don’t know that was even ever under consideration.

Did you sign up for the ACA?

I have government health insurance and when I left government, I decided to continue paying the premium and keep that health insurance. Plus, I’m on Medicare.

Did you get the chance to consult with the president about who your successor as transportation secretary would be?

Absolutely. When I met with the President and told him that I wanted to leave, he and his team gave me lots of opportunities to consult with the White House.

Did you suggest the name of Anthony Foxx [LaHood’s successor; previously mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina], or did you have other people in mind?

I did, but they knew Mayor Foxx because the Democratic Convention was in Charlotte and they liked very much working with him on that. One of the reasons I suggested him is because we worked with Mayor Foxx a lot on his streetcar and his light rail project…. He was a transportation leader so it was pretty easy to recommend him.

If you had to name something that you really wanted to accomplish as transportation secretary but couldn’t, what would that be?

The rear visibility rule; a rule that was mandated by Congress for all autos to have back-up cameras to prevent children and other people getting killed and injured.

Being a Republican in a Democratic administration, did it matter that you were a Republican?

Not at all. I was very warmly welcomed from the very first day. I had a special relationship with the President. I developed great relationships with the cabinet members and friendships that have held me in good stead even since I left.

In future administrations, should presidents reach for what Doris Kearns Goodwin called a “team of rivals”?

Absolutely. There should be people of all political philosophies in an administration that really represents America.

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5 months ago
Posted by pol&pers

I get tired of reading that "public service" means living in poverty. Good salaries, great benefits and pension - being in Congress and in the Cabinet is well-paid, and then most former elected officials choose to cash in using those contacts. Rarely do they go into social work or primary/secondary teaching.

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