WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama nominated Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx on Monday to be his next transportation secretary, choosing a rising star from his own party to follow a popular Republican skilled at working across the aisle.
Flanked by Foxx and outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in the White House’s East Room, Obama praised Foxx as one of the “most effective mayors that Charlotte’s ever seen.”
“The city has managed to turn things around,” the president said. “The economy is growing. There are more jobs, more opportunity. And if you ask Anthony how that happened, he’ll tell you that one of the reasons is that Charlotte made one of the largest investments in transportation in the city’s history.”
Obama touted Foxx’s leadership on a new streetcar project, expanding the city’s international airport and extending Charlotte’s light rail system. The president said Foxx had demonstrated how investments in infrastructure could create jobs and spur economic growth during tough times.
The pick was welcomed by industry leaders and praised by the nation’s mayors, as well as African-American leaders who’ve demanded the White House increase the Cabinet’s diversity. Foxx would be the first black Cabinet member appointed in Obama’s second term.
Coming from Charlotte, where he was elected mayor in 2009, Foxx doesn’t carry the baggage of a Washington insider and should have a smooth confirmation process. But in today’s politically charged environment, nothing is assured.
Foxx very likely will be questioned sharply about some of the day’s toughest issues, including one very much on Senate minds these days: airport delays and furloughs by the Federal Aviation Administration because of forced budget cuts.
Republicans on Monday were circumspect about Foxx, saying privately that they knew little about him. Unless he appears unqualified or something controversial erupts from his past, he’s likely to win confirmation.
He follows one of Washington’s toughest acts, LaHood. Not only was LaHood a highly regarded Republican congressman, he’s also a world-class schmoozer and knows how to navigate Congress as few others do.
LaHood told Foxx on Monday that, if confirmed by the Senate, the mayor would inherit some of the smartest people at the Department of Transportation. And he advocated that quality transportation leads to better jobs and opportunities for families.
“Mayor Foxx gets that,” LaHood said. “I’m confident he’ll do a terrific job.”
Foxx, who turns 42 on Tuesday, said he was “humbled and honored” by the nomination. He was joined by his wife, Samara, and their two children, Hillary and Zachary, as well as his mother and grandmother. Obama noted that Foxx’s grandmother told him she’d worked in the White House during the Truman administration.
Foxx has some Washington experience, having served on the staff of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee from 1999 to 2001. Before that, he worked for two years in the civil rights division of the Justice Department.
As Charlotte’s mayor, he’s frequently visited the White House and, along with other mayors, met with Obama on economic issues. A rising star in Democratic circles, Foxx once was chatted up as a possible contender for the North Carolina governor’s mansion, and last summer he hosted the successful Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
At Monday’s ceremony, Foxx pledged to do his best to uphold the standards set by LaHood, who was popular among Republicans and Democrats.
“There is no such thing as a Democratic or Republican road, bridge, port, air field or railroad. We must work together across party lines to enhance this nation’s infrastructure,” Foxx said.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, R-W.Va., is expected to hold the confirmation hearings. Rockefeller cited the country’s “daunting transportation challenges” and said he planned to move Foxx’s nomination to the committee as soon as possible.
Foxx probably also will be questioned about his lack of direct transportation experience. While he’s played a role in supporting or leading the transportation initiatives that the White House has praised him for helping to create, the planning for Charlotte’s highly praised light-rail line began under the previous mayor, Republican Pat McCrory, who’s now North Carolina’s governor.
In addition, there’s controversy over the city’s handling of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the world’s sixth-busiest based on takeoffs and landings and a hub for US Airways. The North Carolina General Assembly is considering a bill that would shift control of the airport from the city to an independent authority, a move that’s angered Foxx.
Those issues might become fodder for several Republican committee members who are considered hard-line conservatives on budget matters, among them Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Marco Rubio of Florida.
The committee’s top Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who’s also a member of the Senate leadership, said he looked forward to reviewing Foxx’s record and ensuring a “fair and thorough” confirmation process.
“Without question, our nation faces a number of transportation challenges that will require strong leadership and effective communication with Congress to keep our nation moving," he said in a statement.
Obama had received some criticism within the African-American community for not appointing any African-Americans to his second-term Cabinet. Attorney General Eric Holder currently is the only African American who’s leading a Cabinet department.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, sent Obama a blunt letter last month expressing the group’s displeasure with his picks. On Monday she praised the choice of Foxx as someone who’s helped managed an area that’s experienced tremendous growth.
“Anthony will surely be an asset to the president’s Cabinet and to this nation,” she said.
The president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, said Foxx would bring a “wealth of experience” to the job.
Foxx has the backing of several transportation industry groups, including the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and AAA. The trade group Airlines for America urged a quick confirmation.
“He has the experience, and he knows the value” of infrastructure investments, said Patrick Natale, the executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which provides grades on the country’s infrastructure. “Somebody who knows the value can at least weigh the challenges of funding versus tight budgets.” Lesley Clark in Washington and Charlotte Observer staff writer Steve Harrison in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.