Former DOT Secretary LaHood backs Emanuel for job he once held

Emanuel, former Obama chief of staff, faces fierce opposition from progressive Democrats over his tenure as Chicago's mayor

Then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel participated in a panel discussion at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in 2016. (By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel participated in a panel discussion at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in 2016. (By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 2, 2020 at 6:00am

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has received scathing reactions from critics who worry that he might be tapped to serve as President-elect Joe Biden’s Secretary of Transportation — but a high-profile ally stepped forward.

Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who served as secretary from 2009 to 2013, said late Tuesday that he reached out to Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain about 10 days ago to offer a strong endorsement of Emanuel for the position he once held. 

“I think he would be hands-down the best secretary of Transportation that President-elect Biden could nominate,” LaHood said in an interview.

LaHood, who now serves as co-chair of Building America’s Future, an organization devoted to pushing for infrastructure investment, said Klain immediately responded to LaHood’s lengthy email recommending Emanuel for the job. “He knew exactly what I was talking about,” he said.

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All three worked in the Obama White House, where Emanuel served as chief of staff from 2008 to 2010.

Emanuel, 61, is the most frequently mentioned of a pool of names being floated to run the Transportation Department. Among others named are Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

But progressive Democrats have been outraged by the notion that Emanuel would be picked. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told The New York Times that he would be “a pretty divisive pick” that would “signal, I think, a hostile approach to the grass-roots and the progressive wing of the party.”

In particular, progressives are critical of how he handled the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald, who was 17 when he was shot 16 times by police as he walked away. Ocasio-Cortez, in a Nov. 23 tweet, called it “shameful and concerning that he is even being considered.”

Incoming Reps. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., and Cori Bush, D-Mo., have also criticized his handling of the case. “That he’s being considered for a cabinet position is completely outrageous and, honestly, very hurtful,” Jones tweeted.

But LaHood, in an interview, defended Emanuel’s record as mayor, saying “any big city mayor could have that same kind of criticism labeled against him.” He said Garcetti and Buttigieg have faced similar criticism in their mayoral roles. 

Longtime friends

“Rahm and I have been friends for 20 years,” he said, saying they served in Congress together as well as in the White House. “He’s one of my best friends. ... As soon as I learned he was interested, I immediately sent an email to Ron Klain. I did it with the idea that he is, like, 1,000 percent qualified for the job.”

He cited Emanuel’s work overhauling the Chicago transit system, his expansion of Chicago O’Hare International Airport and his implementation of a comprehensive bike system as evidence of his success in transportation.

“He accomplished an enormous amount for transportation,” he said. “There’s no other person in America, in my opinion, that really has earned the right to be secretary of Transportation.”

Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, disagreed.

“He covered up the murder of a 17-year-old child,” she said. “And then when it was clear it was going to come down, he did not take responsibility. That is disqualifying. You don’t get to cover up the murder of a child, then wind up serving in one of the highest levels of our world.”

She also criticized Emanuel’s decision to close more than 50 largely low-income schools in 2013 and his role in a 2012 teacher’s strike, the first in a quarter century for the city.

“It is absolutely perplexing to me why any of us are talking about this,” Gates said of Emanuel being a potential appointee. “I’m disappointed that this is even a conversation.”

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, also questioned why Emanuel is being considered, particularly given Biden’s ambitious infrastructure agenda.

“There are a ton of people who are more qualified than Rahm Emanuel to do this job,” she said, saying “there are really qualified people” on Biden’s transition team who could do the job.

She said prior administrations have undervalued the job. 

“We do not need an incrementalist or a corporate excuser in these positions,” she said. “Particularly if we’re going to move forward on the agenda Joe Biden has set.” 

LaHood, though, cited Emanuel’s past legislative experience as a selling point.

“If President-elect Biden is looking for someone who can help assist in the passage of a major transportation and infrastructure economic development package, there’s nobody better than Rahm Emanuel,” he said. “He’s got the experience to do it.”