President-elect Barack Obama’s picks to lead the departments of transportation and labor took many construction industry officials by surprise. Obama announced on Dec. 19 that he had chosen 14-year Republican congressman Ray LaHood (Ill.) to serve as transportation secretary and Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.), as labor secretary.

Solis and LaHood were not on everyone’s short list.
Photo: AP/Wideworld
Solis and LaHood were not on everyone’s short list.

Industry officials were caught off guard by LaHood’s nomination. He wasn’t on the rumor-mill lists of possible candidates and has not been a leading legislator on transportation matters, though he did serve 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, in fact—secretary of transportation.” He praises LaHood’s “managerial talent” as something needed at the vast DOT.

Steve Hall, American Council of Engineering Companies’ vice president for government affairs, says he was surprised by LaHood’s selection. Still, he has “the right background of transportation experience and legislative know-how and spirit of bipartisanship,” he says.

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.”

David Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association senior vice president for government affairs, says he does not expect LaHood to have any problem being confirmed. Bauer also says LaHood’s record supports industry views. “He has voted right on virtually every transportation policy bill that has come up during his tenure,” Bauer adds. The only exception was a 2007 four-year aviation reauthorization bill, which LaHood and 150 other GOP House members opposed. The bill cleared the House but died in the Senate.

If LaHood is confirmed, he will have his hands full at DOT in 2009, on the legislative front alone. First out of the box is the coming economic-stimulus plan, which is expected to include billions of dollars 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 multiyear highway and transit authorization is on tap for 2009 at a time when the Highway Trust Fund’s outlook is less than completely solid. A multiyear aviation reauthorization also is on the agenda for 2009.

“He’s viewed as a really good, decent guy, not a manipulator,” an industry source says, adding that La Hood is “kind of in the Norman Mineta mold.”

Labor officials also say they were surprised—but delighted—at Solis’ nomination. They describe Solis as a strong union supporter with a decidedly pro-labor voting record. Tom Owens, spokesman for AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, describes Solis’ voting record as “solid across the board,” from supporting Davis-Bacon to being one of the sponsors of the Employee Free Choice Act, organized labor’s top legislative priority for 2009. The bill is opposed by construction industry groups.

Solis is most known in Congress as a renewable-energy advocate who successfully pushed through the Green Jobs Act of 2007, which authorized up to $125 million for national and state job training programs for “green collar” jobs in construction and renewable energy projects. Obama says Solis would play a key role in developing policies to fulfill Obama’s stated goal of creating some 2.5 million jobs.

Solis currently sits on a variety of energy-related committees in the House, but not on the labor committee.

Construction employer groups say Solis will be faced with the daunting challenge of getting more people back to work. Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors, says Solis will need to have “a very aggressive agenda.” Paul Meyer, executive director of the California chapter of ACEC, describes Solis as “a very active” legislator who is a “strong supporter of infrastructure and green building.”

But some industry groups are wary. Geoff Burr, vice president of government affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors, says he hopes that Solis, if confirmed, works “to create jobs that will help grow our economy and provide transparency at the department, as opposed to supporting politically divisive legislation like the Employee Free Choice Act.”