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Ray LaHood: Outspoken, conservative, Republican — and for Obama

Ray LaHood

Ray LaHood

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Updated: October 1, 2012 5:36PM

TAMPA, Fla. — The last time I saw Ray LaHood was at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, where the outspoken, conservative, seven-term congressman from Peoria was an enthusiastic delegate for John McCain.

Today, LaHood is still outspoken, conservative and a Republican. But for the first time in his life, he will vote for a Democrat for president, Barack Obama, and not his party’s nominee, Mitt Romney.

“When I was watching the convention Tuesday night, I was so struck at how nasty it was,” he said by phone from his family home in Peoria. “Not Mrs. Romney, she was lovely.”

But speakers like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie whose job, said LaHood, “Was to put the red meat out there.”

“They give the president no credit for anything,” he said, “even though they know he has reached out to them and been bipartisan.”

Bipartisan and independent are two words that define LaHood’s political career.

When he was in a freshman in Congress, he was one of only three Republicans who refused to sign on to Speaker Newt Gingrich’s hyper-partisan “Contract With America.”

He appreciated that over the years Republicans from Ronald Reagan to Bob Michel and Henry Hyde could work out meaningful compromises with Democratic leaders like Tip O’Neill and Dan Rostenkowski.

But in 2008, a few months after he helped nominate McCain, LaHood was repelled by the venomous rhetoric coming out of running-mate Sarah Palin’s rallies. And he said so to WBBM radio, saying her conduct, “Doesn’t befit the office that she’s running for. And frankly, people don’t like it.”

His plan was to retire from public life in 2008.

But after the election, after Obama won, the new president asked two Republicans to join his Cabinet. One was a holdover from the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The other was LaHood, who became Obama’s Secretary of Transportation.

“I’m not bashful about my support of him, and it’s not because he gave me this opportunity,” said Secretary LaHood. “I was a bona fide Republican when he announced me and continue to be.”

But the secretary makes no bones about what he thinks is terribly wrong with Washington and right with his boss.

“I don’t like the harsh tone of this campaign at all. I think the president is going to run on his record. He saved the car industry. Turned the banking sector around. No president has ever done more. I’ve watched it. I’ve had a front row seat,” he said.

It will be, he predicts, “one of the closest elections in the 236-year history of this country and it will be a judgment call on the economy.”

LaHood’s son, state Sen. Darin LaHood (R-Peoria) is strongly behind Romney.

It is a respectful father-son disagreement.

But is he at all worried how this will play in Peoria?

“You just have to tell it like it is,” said the secretary.

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