President-elect Barack Obama's choice to lead the Dept. of Transportation, 14-year Republican congressman Ray LaHood (Ill.), took construction industry officials by surprise. LaHood's name didn't appear on rumor-mill lists of possible candidates to lead the Dept. of Transportation. Obama formally announced LaHood as his pick to be DOT Secretary on Dec. 19.
He hasn't been a leading legislator on transportation matters, though he served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for his first six years in the House.
Nevertheless, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), the Transportation committee's current chairman, says he believes LaHood will be "an excellent—superb infact—secretary of transportation." He praises LaHood's "managerial talent" as something needed at the vast DOT.
Oberstar says he couldn't point to any specific legislative accomplishment of LaHood's on the committee, but says, "He was a team player all the way through."
Steve Hall, government affairs vice president for the American Council of Engineering Companies, says he was surprised "a bit," by Obama's choice, "but pleasantly surprised." Hall says LaHood has "the right background of transportation experience and legislative knowhow and spirit of bipartisanship that I think he could be a very, very effective part of this new administration team."
Another industry source notes that LaHood is close to Obama and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the President-elect's pick to be White House chief of staff, both from Illinois. As a result, the source says, "I think [LaHood] will have an open door to the White House.'
If LaHood is confirmed, he will have his hands full on the legislative front alone. First out of the box, is the coming economic stimulus plan, which is expected to include billions for highways and other transportation projects. Oberstar says he has proposed including $85 billion for infrastructure in the stimulus, of which $48 billion would be for transportation.
In addition, a multi-year highway and transit authorization is on tap for 2009 at a time when the Highway Trust Fund's outlook is less than completely solid. Aviation programs also are up for renewal in 2009.
In another nomination, Obama has tapped Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) for the top post at the Interior Dept. The nomination, announced Dec. 17, has been well received by both industry and environmental groups, who describe the candidate as a centrist consensus builder.
"He's a good pick," says Hall. "He's built a good reputation in the Senate as a consensus builder who listens to both sides�We can work with him." he says.
Ralph Grossi, the immediate past president of the American Farmland Trust, says Salazar did "yeoman's work" in "building bridges between the ranching and conservation communities" during the 1990s to develop a farm and ranch land protection program in Colorado.
Environmental groups praise Salazar for his support of renewable and alternative energy sources. Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, "Salazar has demonstrated leadership in Congress as a supporter of clean, renewable energy, as opposed to unsustainable, destructive energy sources."
Salazar was elected to the Senate in Nov., 2004 and sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In the Senate, he towed a centrist, moderate line. He criticized the Interior Dept.'s decision earlier this year to open up the protected Roan Plateau in Colorado for drilling, but is also reportedly open to off-shore drilling. Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D- N.M.) calls Salazar a "superb" choice and says, "He understands how to manage federal lands and resources and knows the importance of working with stakeholders while protecting the public interest."