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Obama Selects A Mayor For DOT Secretary -- But Not Villaraigosa

William Fulton on
Apr 30, 2013

As expected, President Obama has picked a mayor to succeed Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation. But it's not Los Angeles's Antonio Villaraigosa. It's Anthony Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina.

As I've written before, there are good reasons to pick a mayor as DOT secretary. There are also good political reasons to pick Foxx. He's an impressive young African-American politician from a purple state that the Democratic Party has targeted for great things. (He was, of course, the host mayor for the Democratic National Convention last year and was given a keynote speaking slot.) It's also unlikely that he could win a statewide election, at least in the short run, given North Carolina's current politics.

More than any other recent DOT secretary, the 41-year-old Foxx resembles Federico Pena, who was appointed by Bill Clinton when he the 46-year-old Latino mayor of Denver who had just built a major airport. Pena occasionally seemed overmatched by the job at first but eventually grew into it and later served as Energy Secretary as well.

Foxx has no executive experience (the Charlotte mayor's job is part-time, paying $22,000 per year), but he comes to the job with impressive credentials as an advocate of transit, smart growth, and infill development. Since becoming mayor in 2009, he has continued to successfully implement the city's light-rail system, which was initiated by his Republican predecessor, Pat McCrory, who's now the governor. He installed the progressive smart growther Danny Pleasant as his transportation director and has pushed to add streetcar lines to the city's transit system, especially to African-American neighborhoods and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, to the east of downtown.

However, Foxx has clashed on the streetcar issue with McCrory, who has argued that the streetcar project will hurt the city's chances for funding a light-rail extension.

And even though the Democrats have targeted for great things, he does a good job of maintaining the longstanding mayor tradition of maintaining a nonpartisan stance on practical issues. He did this on the topic of infrastructure the other day, and I watched him do it last summer at a Politico breakfast in Washington, when he and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, also a Democrat, talked about the upcoming political conventions in their cities.

"Historically, these issues have been less partisan," Foxx said at that time. "Charlotte is growing by 30,000 people every year. People are coming for all kinds of reasons. Our challenge as a city is integrating thousands of new people without raising our air quality problems and commute times. Transit infrastructure is so critical."

I met Foxx personally in 2010, when we both participated in the Mayor's Institute on City Design a federally funded institute that allows mayors to get together to discuss urban design issues. At MICD, each mayor brings an urban design problem to the table and seek advice from other mayors and outside experts. I brought the idea of capping the 101 freeway in downtown Ventura. Foxx brought not an urban development issue but design and traffic problems associated with an affluent suburban employment center on the south side of Charlotte known as Ballantyne. It seemed somewhat odd that Foxx wouldn't bring an urban development or transit issue, but he was determined to address a problem that he truly believed was harming Charlotte's economic expansion.

Concidentally, I'll be in Charlotte the week after next [ conducting a workshop with city officials on how best to direct public investment in five struggling outlying neighborhoods, most of which won't get rail transit. I'll provide an update at that time.

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