Barack Obama made a campaign pledge to appoint Republicans to his cabinet in order to transcend old political divisions. In retaining Defense Secretary Bob Gates, a registered independent who has served GOP presidents, Mr. Obama picked a skilled technocrat.
His choice of retiring GOP Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois to be transportation secretary is more intriguing and offers clues to the kind of Republican Obama likes on domestic issues—one who goes along with his taste for big government. As a congressman, LaHood was named "Porker of the Month" by Citizens Against Government Waste for the countless "earmarks" he stuffed into legislation. Teamsters president James Hoffa is a big booster of LaHood, issuing a statement when the latter was named by Obama that said it all: "As a moderate Republican, he has been a friend of the Teamsters Union on a number of important issues."
As we've learned from the Blagojevich scandal, Illinois politics is a rich stew often seasoned with corruption. Traditional ideological differences aren't nearly as important as raw political horse trading.
While Republicans have held the governorship for 26 of the last 32 years, state spending has gone up 68 percent in inflation-adjusted terms during that period. Many of the state's Republicans style themselves after Bob Michel, the minority leader of the U.S. House until 1994, who prided himself on "working" with the other party as much or more as his own. "Bob Michel was the personification of the sort of Republican that conservatives hoped had vanished after the 1994 takeover of Congress," says David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union and an Illinois native. "Now I fear they are coming back."
Ray LaHood has always been a Bob Michel Republican. Indeed, he was Mr. Michel's chief of staff when he won his House seat upon his boss's retirement in 1994. At first his voting record was relatively conservative—but by this year LaHood was voting with the majority of his party only 78 percent of the time. After Denny Hastert, a fellow member from Illinois, became House Speaker in 1998, LaHood became his point man in the House. Although former House majority leader Tom DeLay is often blamed for encouraging GOP members to become addicted to pork-barrel earmarks, Hastert was fully supportive of the approach.
After all, such an approach had been part of Republican success in Illinois. For 40 years, William Cellini, a major Republican lobbyist and power-broker, has dominated Illinois road construction by cutting deals with both parties. The Chicago Sun-Times reports that after some Democrats were shocked to see Cellini sitting with Rod Blagojevich and the now-convicted fundraiser Tony Rezko at a party a few years back, Cellini had a simple answer: "When we're in, we're in. And when you're in, we're in. We're always in." Political reformers call this bipartisan alliance of fixers "The Combine."
But now it's Cellini who is in…hot water. Last October, U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicted him on charges of conspiring with Rezko to shake down an investment firm for campaign contributions intended for "Public Official A," almost certainly Gov. Blagojevich.
Some Illinois leaders have fought the Combine. Pat Quinn, the Democratic lieutenant governor in line to take over from Gov. Blagojevich, has a reputation as a reformer. So does former senator Peter Fitzgerald, the man who in 2001 recommended Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) become the U.S. attorney in Chicago. That same year Sen. Fitzgerald also labeled an Illinois congressional delegation "wish list" of $600 million in projects being submitted to President Bush a "megahog letter."
"The mere fact that a project is located somewhere within the state of Illinois does not mean that it is inherently meritorious," he wrote Speaker Hastert. In turn, Hastert called such criticism "grandstanding."
BUT PETER FITZGERALD HAD already sealed his political fate, as far as the Combine was concerned, in 2000, when he filibustered the construction of a library honoring Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, the state capital. The senator accused GOP governor George Ryan, now serving a six-and-a-half-year prison sentence on a corruption conviction, of opposing competitive bidding rules so he could dole out money to political allies. "I want Illinois to get a $150 million library, not a $50 million library that just happens to cost $150 million," he told fellow senators. While his filibuster failed, he earned the enmity of Speaker Hastert and his allies such as LaHood and Cellini, whose wife chairs the agency that oversees the Lincoln Museum.
In late 2002, Rep. LaHood told the Chicago Sun-Times: "I'm thinking about trying to make sure Peter has an opponent" in the 2004 Republican primary. "I think we can do better than him." Soon thereafter, Illinois Republican leaders made it clear Fitzgerald would have trouble raising money for reelection and would have to spend several million from his personal fortune. Sen. Fitzgerald decided to retire and return to banking.
But he remains concerned about how the mores of the Combine and the Chicago Daley machine will shape the trillion-dollar "stimulus package" planned by Mr. Obama. Commenting on LaHood's appointment, he told me: "The public works money part of that couldn't fall into worse hands. It's mind boggling how much the road projects in Illinois have been mishandled." (LaHood's office did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Barack Obama had a different take in announcing his choice of LaHood. He pledged that "every dollar that we spend" would be spent on the basis of merit, instead of politics: "If we're building a road, it better not be a road to nowhere." For his part, LaHood is paying lip service to all this anti-earmark rhetoric. During his confirmation hearing in late January, he told senators that while he personally felt that Congress was best qualified to make spending decisions he would go along with Obama's pledge to eliminate earmarks from the pending stimulus package. "President Obama has made it clear that in the stimulus bill…there will not be earmarks. I work for President Obama." That's one of the least ringing endorsements of a presidential policy I've ever heard from a cabinet member.
All of this posturing against earmarks amuses Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass. "Obama may insist that any road built will be a road to somewhere, but it will certainly be lining lots of pockets along the way," he told me. "I don't see Ray LaHood standing in the way of any of that. He's part of the Combine."
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