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LaHood won't be back for 2nd term

| Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, 6:12 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Ray LaHood, the Illinois Republican who turned distracted driving into a national crusade while serving a Democratic president, will step down after four years as President Obama's Transportation secretary.

LaHood is the only Republican in the Cabinet, a mantle that will be carried by former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska if he wins Senate confirmation as secretary of Defense.

LaHood's relentless campaign against distracted driving, his safety-first mantra and his determination to visit every state in the union gave the Peoria native a higher profile than several predecessors in the role, traditionally played out in the shadow of more glamorous Cabinet jobs.

LaHood made the announcement in a statement on Tuesday: “I have let President Obama know that I will not serve a second term as Secretary of the Department of Transportation. It has been an honor and a privilege to lead the Department, and I am grateful to President Obama for giving me such an extraordinary opportunity. I plan to stay on until my successor is confirmed to ensure a smooth transition for the Department and all the important work we still have to do.”

There was no immediate word from the White House on who would replace him, but the fact that LaHood held off any announcement during a period when other second-term Cabinet appointments were being announced hinted that an active search may have been under way.

The rumor mill was rife with suggestions, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who made a name for himself by rebuilding that city's transit system, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman and James Oberstar, the former Minnesota congressman who once chaired the House transportation committee.

But the Transportation secretary nominee often has defied Beltway gossip, most recently with the selection of LaHood, and during the administration of President George W. Bush with the appointment of Norman Mineta, a Californian who served as a Democrat in Congress.

Obama thanked LaHood in a statement issued by the White House: “I want to thank Secretary LaHood for his dedication, his hard work, and his years of service to the American people — including the outstanding work he's done over the last four years as Secretary of Transportation. I also want to thank Ray for his friendship.”

Serving in the Cabinet of a Democratic president tested political skills LaHood learned on Capitol Hill, first as a top aide to House Minority Leader Bob Michel and later after assuming the congressional seat when his mentor retired. During the 14 years he represented the district of his hometown, Peoria, LaHood saw Congress evolve from a stage for compromise into a more contentious ideological battleground.

He served on the House transportation committee, which continued as a relative oasis of compromise for two simple reasons: the universal need for transportation made it bipartisan, and the desire of individual members to earmark funding for their districts made negotiating an art.

Though earmarks fell by the wayside after he left Congress, his skill at finding compromise and his ability to cross party lines proved valuable to the Obama administration.

“Four years ago, my good friend Ray LaHood put party politics aside in order to help modernize our transportation infrastructure and speed our economic recovery,” Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., ranking Democrat on the transportation committee, said in a statement. “During his incredibly successful tenure, Secretary LaHood was a staunch advocate for job-creating infrastructure investments, including high-speed rail, and he leaves an unparalleled legacy in making our highways, skies, rail, and transit systems safer.”

LaHood's nomination to the Cabinet and his influence within the administration was enormously enhanced by the fact that one of his closest friends - Rahm Emanuel - was the president's chief of staff. LaHood and Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, exchanged phone calls or text messages on a daily basis.

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