Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Peoria’s Ray LaHood: Is He Staying in Obama’s Cabinet or Going… and Who Decides?

Barack Obama has been criticized for the lack of diversity in his cabinet: too white and too male. With two women departing and a third likely to—and Republican Chuck Hagel expected to become Secretary of Defense—could that leave white male Republican Ray LaHood, his well-regarded transportation secretary, without a seat?

President Obama is getting hammered for an administration—and a cabinet—that is too white and too male. Not so much too Democratic Party, especially with the hue and cry surrounding his pick for Defense—Republican Chuck Hagel, former U.S. senator from Nebraska.

So where does that leave Obama’s only Republican cabinet secretary—former congressman and current transportation secretary, Ray LaHood? 

LaHood, a white man from Peoria, was strikingly missing yesterday when the second-term plans of several Obama cabinet members were announced. Attorney General Eric Holder will stay on (although probably only for a matter of months), and so will Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki; the latter one of two Asian Americans in Obama’s Cabinet.

I would bet that the President would like LaHood to stay on.  He has garnered high marks for his signature work on such issues as high-speed rail and strong laws against “distracted driving” (i.e. texting while driving). I emailed LaHood’s press secretary this morning seeking news of his boss’s plans.  “I don’t have anything new on the Secretary’s plans,” he responded, offering LaHood’s statement from early December: “I had a meeting a week or so after the election with president Obama, and we agreed to continue talking.”

LaHood has previously issued conflicting statements.  In September, according to The Hill’s Keith Laing, he seemed to indicate he might like to stay:  “As somebody who’s been in public service 35 years, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a better job.” In October he said he was leaving after the first term. In December he appeared to be back in the stay mode: “I had one meting with the president and he’s a little bit busy now [with the fiscal cliff], but we’ll get back together sometime early next year and we’ll continue our discussion.”

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the first female Hispanic to hold a cabinet position, announced yesterday that she is leaving. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also exiting and almost certainly being replaced with the President’s nominee, Sen. John Kerry. Obama has just announced his choice for Treasury Secretary, Jacob Lew—like Kerry, a white male. Although not officially members of the cabinet, but close advisers with cabinet-level status, are Obama’s picks for CIA head (white male John Brennan), and chief of staff, a position likely to go to one of two white males (Ron Klain or Denis McDonough). Complicating matters further, his EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, an African American, has just announced her exit.

Is the President holding off on LaHood’s future in hopes of making an appointment to the Department of Labor of a woman and/or a minority?  

If that’s the case, and LaHood soon announces his return to private life, then the job likely won’t go to Sen. Dick Durbin, who has been mentioned as a possibility to join Obama’s cabinet—transportation or labor would seem good fits—should he decide not to run for reelection in 2014.  And there too would go (again) the chances of the position going to Bill Daley, should he forgo taking on Pat Quinn in a run for governor. In December 1992, Daley waited in vain for the expected call from President-elect Bill Clinton that the transportation post was his.  Tom Brokaw had even reported it on the evening news and friends joked that Daley was looking for real estate in DC. The job went instead to Federico Peña. 

Clinton had promised a cabinet that looked like America and Daley didn’t help fulfill that promise. “They needed a Hispanic,” Daley told me when I interviewed him in 2004. Daley received his consolation prize—the appointment as commerce secretary—in Clinton’s second term.

 

Photograph: USDOT

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