Earlier this month, Gov-elect Bruce Rauner called Ray LaHood, 69, the former seven-term Republican congressman from Peoria and former secretary of transportation for Barack Obama, and asked for a meeting. Rauner and LaHood had some making up to do—LaHood had groused publicly, as recently as last June, that he “despised” Rauner’s “political tactics,” especially in the Republican primary, when, LaHood suggested, Rauner was likely behind the scandal that decimated state treasurer Dan Rutherford’s campaign and reputation. LaHood also seemed to suggest that Rauner was behind some dark arts that resulted in LaHood’s protégé, Peoria Republican congressman Aaron Schock, dropping out of the race before the ugly Republican primary even got going. “Trashing good public servants,” LaHood muttered to me in June.
That’s all water under the bridge—a good metaphor to use for LaHood, because his mantra since exiting Obama’s cabinet a year and a half ago is infrastructure. He now works to fix those bridges, those dams, those underpasses, maintain those roads and train tracks. He hones that message from the D.C. office of the law firm DLA Piper where he, a non-lawyer, works as a “policy adviser”—not, he stresses, a lobbyist.
During a telephone conversation late yesterday from LaHood’s DC office, he said, happily, that he leaves this weekend for Peoria to celebrate the holidays with his family. (He and his wife divide their time between DC and Peoria.) When I ask him if he misses being in Congress, he replied, “Not one bit. I love my life as a private citizen. I can do what I want and say what I want.” He mentions more than once that he is often on the road, traveling in the U.S. and abroad and preaching on the subject of shoring up infrastructure. He rules out ever again running for office, and says emphatically that he’ll be happy to advise Rauner, but “I don’t want a job.”
In an odd way, Ray LaHood is following in the footsteps of his son, Darin, 46, the state senator from Peoria. “Darin worked very hard for Bruce in central Illinois and across the state,” LaHood, father of four and grandfather of 12, tells me proudly. “Darin raised significant money in central Illinois. He’s one of Gov-elect Rauner’s trusted advisors.”
Tell me about your meeting with the Gov-elect.
He called me personally. “I’m in D.C.; any chance we could sit down and talk?” We met for an hour in the state of Illinois DC office. He had an aide in the room taking notes. I took a little list with me, things I thought he needed to think about. I told him, “I don’t want anything. I don’t want a job.” I want Bruce Rauner to be successful; if he’s successful, our state will benefit.
You didn’t vote for Rauner in the primary. You voted instead for Rutherford. You have told me about your warm feelings and affection for Pat Quinn. Did you vote for Rauner in the general election?
Yes I did. Of course I did. I consider Pat a friend, we go back 30 years, but I believe Pat had his opportunity, with Democratic majorities in both houses, to turn things around and he couldn’t do it. [LaHood told me last June that Quinn, who supported high speed rail, a priority for LaHood, was “one of the best governors I worked with.”] Now we need to bring in a new perspective, new leadership, good business practices. Pat could have done what other Democratic governors have done. In California Gov. [Jerry] Brown, in his first term, had a supermajority in the assembly. When he came in he faced a huge budget deficit. He got reelected overwhelmingly because he showed he could work with the assembly and was able to work with the public employee unions.
So what was on your little list for Rauner?
1. Budget 2. Pensions 3. Economic climate. I believe that the state will benefit from Rauner’s fresh set of eyes and ideas and his best business practices. We have to do something.
You have told me more than once about your close, personal friendship with Rahm Emanuel. Are you currently involved in in his administration?
I’m working for Rahm now to find the right person to be the Aviation Commissioner for O’Hare and Midway. He asked me to chair a committee and we’re doing a nationwide search. The position [formerly occupied by Rosemarie Andolino] is now vacant.
You’re registered to vote in Peoria so you couldn’t vote for Rahm next February, but I assume you would if you could.
He’s the best mayor in the country, improving transit and education—and not just primary and secondary education, but community colleges, too. And then there’s the work he has done on infrastructure: O’Hare modernization, on taking care of the streets after the last two brutal winters. [And he's] attracting business to the city, [such as] Archer Daniels Midland moving its headquarters from Decatur to Chicago. Rahm deserves reelection. I’m proud to support him but I can’t vote for him.
So why does he have an approval rating of 35 percent?
I don’t know. The day I was with him last week—I was in Chicago working on the aviation chief selection—we went to three different events between 6 and 8 at night: an education event, a holiday party for some of his staff, and an event with Luis Gutiérrez. Rahm’s a driven person….I think he’s at the top of the heap.
The Illinois Republican Party lost one of its leaders this month when Judy Baar Topinka died. Were you close with her?
Judy represented the best part of politics, what’s good about public service. She and I consulted when I was considering running for governor in 2006. Finally it hit me. I said, “Judy, you should run.” On the spot I wrote her a check for $25,000 out of my campaign fund. She was a proven vote getter. She lost that race, but she was so energetic, enthusiastic, positive that she came back to win the comptroller’s race.
What do you think of President Obama’s initiative to open up relations with Cuba?
[It's] terrific, long overdue, and sure to be a major part of Obama’s legacy. Nixon goes to China; Obama goes to Cuba. There's so much potential for common, ordinary Cuban citizens, for economic growth…..Yes, Republicans will fight it; that’s nothing new for the President. From the beginning of his presidency, if he has an idea, the Republicans are against it.
You have told me in previous conversations about your friendship with President Obama, dating back to his time as a state senator in Springfield. You called him a “dear friend.” Did he and Michelle invite you to any holiday parties?
I didn’t go to the White House for a holiday party this year. I went to a lot of them when I was in Congress. I had a good run of holiday parties.
Have you met with Obama in the White House lately?
From time to time I will shoot him an email, or rather shoot it to a member of his staff. Since I left the Cabinet, I’ve been in the White house three or four times. During the government shutdown I was there to give him my take. When the Patriarchs visited Washington, [National Security Adviser] Susan Rice called me and asked me to arrange a meeting. So I was there with the Patriarchs, one from Lebanon, one from Egypt, one from Iraq. We met in the Roosevelt Room and the President stopped by. He was very engaged. I don’t know where this idea that he’s aloof comes from. He’s a warm, caring individual; as big a people person as anyone I’ve ever met.
When you were secretary of transportation in Obama’s first term, you gave the cabinet job more visibility than I ever remember it having. Your successor, Anthony Foxx [former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina], has a lower profile.
He’s doing well. We talk about once a month. He just has a different style. When we came in, the country was in a terrible recession. We had to get the stimulus money out the door. We had the “Cash for Clunkers” program. It was a different time. And we used a bullhorn to scream about distracted driving. Now it has fallen on the states to regulate. When we started, 18 states had a law against texting while driving; now 43 do.
When I talked to you a bit more than a year ago, you said your memoir was coming. Is it still coming?
It’s finished, and will be out in August. My cowriter is Frank Mackaman of the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, which houses my papers. A lot of it is about my bipartisan work in Congress, but it is a memoir and does cover my growing up in Peoria and how I got involved in politics.
Speaking of politics, who are you supporting in the Republican primary for president in 2016? [In 2008, LaHood was a delegate for John McCain, but in 2012 he voted for his then-boss, Barack Obama, over Mitt Romney.]
I’m supporting Jeb Bush. [Bush announced this week that he’s exploring a campaign for president.] He offers us the best opportunity to win back the White House. The Bush family has contributed so much. I like Jeb so much. I wrote a note to his advisers and told them that I want to be involved in the campaign.
Post script: I’ve interviewed scores of politicians over the years, and I’ve never found one as genuinely bipartisan as Ray LaHood. He’d be in a bind if Joe Biden ends up as the Democrats’ 2016 nominee. LaHood told me in an earlier interview, “I have found Joe 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].”