(MCT) — WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former lawmaker from Illinois and the last Republican left in President Barack Obama's first-term Cabinet, announced Tuesday he will be stepping down once a replacement is confirmed.
Among those mentioned as a possible successor is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose second and final term ends June 30. He has sought to establish himself as a national leader on transportation and made improving L.A.'s transit system a cornerstone of his tenure.
Villaraigosa played a key role in crafting a provision in last year's federal transportation bill designed to speed up projects around the country, including in Los Angeles. He was also one of the most prominent Latino supporters for Obama, who has been under pressure to appoint Latinos to his Cabinet. The former California Assembly speaker was chairman of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last summer.
The mayor is traveling in South Korea; his office said he could not be reached for comment about the opening.
A longtime ally and another former Assembly speaker, Fabian Nunez, would not confirm whether Villaraigosa had been approached about a Cabinet position but said he believes the mayor would, if one was offered, serve his full term.
"He has his two feet solidly placed on the ground," Nunez said, adding that Villaraigosa feels he would "have an obligation to finish out his term as mayor. That's first and foremost."
The White House declined to discuss potential Cabinet nominees, but former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm also has been mentioned as a replacement. Like Villaraigosa, Granholm was a key surrogate for Obama and a speaker at the last Democratic convention.
In a note to department staff, LaHood said he would remain until he was officially replaced to ensure "a smooth transition for the department and all the important work we still have to do."
The former seven-term congressman from Peoria, Ill., has led the department since 2009, but stated in 2011 that he did not plan to serve in the president's second term and would retire from public service. The president has another Republican on deck for his second term — former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, whom Obama has nominated to lead the Pentagon. The other Republican in Obama's first-term Cabinet, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, left in 2011.
Despite his party affiliation, LaHood's views were often out of step with those of his former Republican colleagues, and his appointment did little to boost the president's standing with the opposition.
In his note, LaHood named among his top accomplishments his work to reduce distracted driving and combat pilot fatigue. He also listed his support for high-speed rail and more than $50 billion spent on transportation projects as part of the president's stimulus measure, a program reviled by Republicans, who see it as an example of wasteful federal spending.
"We helped jump-start the economy and put our fellow Americans back to work," LaHood wrote. "Our achievements are significant."
In an interview, LaHood said the biggest battle for his successor would not be over policy but over money. The new secretary will have to find a way to fund highway construction and maintenance when the federal 18.4-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax isn't bringing in as much as it used to because vehicles are more fuel-efficient. There is strong opposition to raising the tax, which was last increased in 1993.
LaHood had pushed a five-year transportation funding bill, but had to settle for a two-year bill.
"The funding is the big question. Everyone knows what needs to be done in transportation in America. But the debate will be how to pay for it," LaHood said. "The American people are way, way ahead of the politicians on this. They're ready to have their potholes fixed . . . and they know it takes resources."
(Tribune staff writers Richard Simon in Washington, Jon Hilkevitch in Chicago and Cathleen Decker in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)