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Ray LaHood: A ‘no baloney’ approach to Washington’s culture problem

The Honorable Ray LaHood

(Bloomberg Government) – Ray LaHood has seen some stuff. He presided over Bill Clinton’s impeachment, sat on the House Intelligence Committee during 9/11 and served as one of the only Republicans in the Obama administration. He also counts among his closest friends now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, one of the, er, most colorful–and accomplished–Obama administration alumni. All of this has taught him one, essential truth: bipartisanship matters. Today, LaHood stands as a model of a bygone (but not too far gone) era of bipartisanship and the benefits it can bring to an organization, even one as divided as the U.S. Congress.

The former Congressman and Secretary of Transportation joined Bloomberg Government for an interview ahead of the release of his new book “Seeking Bipartisanship: My Life in Politics” — he shared what it was like to be a Republican in President Obama’s cabinet and advice for aspiring leaders in Washington (hint- have a mentor, and pay it forward.)

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

What led you to write “Seeking Bipartisanship: My Life in Politics?”

To be honest, I wrote the book for my 12 grandchildren. Someday my grandkids will be thinking about public service and politics, and 25 years from now when they’re thinking about their own careers, this will give them something to look back on and think “Why did my grandfather do this or that?”

I wrote it for my grandkids, but I also did it for the ages. Someday— maybe 100 years from now— someone may ask “Well, what really happened during impeachment? What really happened during 9/11?” When somebody’s doing research 25, 30 or 40 years from now— hopefully they can pick up this book, and find something documented on Bill Clinton’s impeachment or how Newt Gingrigh nationalized a Congressional election.

It’s just about seven years to the day that President Obama was elected- did you have any inkling then that you’d be part of his administration?

I had no idea that I’d be a part of the cabinet, but three or four days after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois, he called me. I’d never met him. “Ray- this is Barack Obama. I’m coming to Peoria. Can we sit down and talk about how we can work together?” A week later, we met in my Peoria congressional office, and we became friends— for two years we worked together for Illinois. The other part of the story is that Rahm Emanuel and I became very good friends— probably as close as you can get as members of Congress. We not only worked on legislation, but about once a month he’d invite seven or eight Democrats and I’d invite seven or eight Republicans, and we’d go out to dinner and get to know one another.

A few months before the Presidential election, I ran into Obama in the halls of the Capitol. He asked me, “What are you going to do during retirement? If this thing works out for me, I may be looking for a few Republicans.”

A few weeks later, I got a call saying “President-elect Obama would like to see you in Chicago.” I drove up with my wife, sat with Obama for a 40 minute interview— and a week later they offered me the transportation job. This happened to me because of my relationship with the President-elect and Rahm Emmanuel.

What are some tips you’d give to aspiring leaders here in Washington?

I think the most important thing you can do as a leader is build a team of good people. I interviewed every political appointee we hired at DOT, and I said to them “We are building a team here. We’re going to work together.”

The other thing you need to do is make sure the team knows that everybody’s working together— communicate with one another, no secrets, no baloney. When you start doing that, you become like family because you trust each other.

The other thing I always say to people is— you have to mentor someone. You are in a position that you won’t be in forever. You need to be able to identify someone who can step into your shoes, but more importantly who can also pick up some of the skills and leadership you’ve been modeling. Public service is temporary, and there always have to be good people to follow.

How do you evaluate bipartisanship right now in Washington, and the potential for it going forward with a new speaker and outgoing administration?

We’re at a crossroads right now. It’s very hard in a presidential campaign— you don’t really hear anyone talking about bipartisanship— you hear candidates just trashing one another. I think Paul Ryan, if he adopts the philosophy that you’re not speaker of the Republican Party, you’re speaker of the whole House— he’ll get a lot done.

The idea that you’re just going to use people in your own party to pass legislation— it’s not what this country is about— and it’s not how Congress should solve big problems. Congress could solve immigration, infrastructure and tax reform today if the speaker allowed the entire House to be a part of the debate.

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