Anthony Foxx appears to have a clear path to confirmation as U.S. transportation secretary next week, as virtually all of his 16 predecessors have.
Yet while most of them were Washington insiders familiar to the senators who vetted them, Foxx, a second-term Democratic mayor of Charlotte, N.C., is relatively unknown in the capital, in spite of his prominent role last year at the Democratic National Convention, which his city hosted.
That makes the traditional Capitol Hill meet-and-greet process for cabinet nominees even more important.
“He’s got to introduce himself,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University and a former Senate staffer. “He’s got to make a Washington debut.”
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For Foxx, learning the ways of the capital starts with the confirmation process. Before the full Senate votes on his nomination, he must be confirmed by the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. His hearing is Wednesday, which puts him on a tight schedule to meet with the panel’s 13 Democrats and 11 Republicans – nearly a quarter of the Senate.
“That’s the constituency that counts the most to him right now,” said Andrew Card, transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush, and later chief of staff for President George W. Bush.
As is customary, Foxx will have help from his home state. North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, met with Foxx on Thursday, and said she’ll help introduce him at his confirmation hearing.
“I am positive he will make an excellent secretary of transportation,” she said.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., will also accompany Foxx to the hearing.
So far, the senators and transportation experts who have gotten to know Foxx see someone who, at age 42, brings new energy and ideas to a job that oversees the nation’s airports, highways, railroads and transit systems.
“It’s nice to have someone with enthusiasm and vinegar,” said Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University.
Foxx developed a reputation for promoting mass transit in Charlotte. Since he became mayor in 2009, the city has started a streetcar project and a $1 billion expansion of its light rail system. Charlotte is also a major aviation hub, and he oversaw the completion of a third runway at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.
Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat and member of the commerce panel, said Foxx’s experience as a mayor is an asset because he understands what it’s like to work with the department he’s been asked to lead.
“This is the kind of addition you want in the administration,” said Begich, himself a former mayor of Anchorage. “Someone who’s actually run something. Someone who’s had to deal with the bureaucracy.”
The Transportation Department was created in 1966 and most of the nominees to head it were confirmed unanimously. The job frequently goes to political allies, and Foxx has close ties to President Barack Obama. The appointment also quelled criticism that Obama’s second-term cabinet lacked diversity. Foxx was Charlotte’s second African American mayor and would be the third black DOT secretary.
After spending an hour with him this week, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who leads the Commerce committee, said it would be an easy confirmation.
“If you want to be negative about it, it’s really hard to find something,” Rockefeller said.
But Baker said it won’t always be smooth sailing for Foxx, who follows Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who had strong relationships on the hill. LaHood also had a stellar reputation in transportation policy circles, and earlier this year, some begged him to stay on board.
Baker added that Foxx might not be as well-equipped to handle Republican opposition to Obama’s transportation priorities, including mass transit and high-speed rail.
“Mass transit is something that’s a difficult sell, particularly for House Republicans,” he said.
His work for a manufacturer of hybrid buses could generate some critical questions. While mayor, Foxx also has been deputy general counsel for DesignLine, a company that’s received millions of dollars from Obama’s economic stimulus program.
The Charlotte Observer reported earlier this month that the company had been sued over allegedly defective vehicles, had been accused of missing product delivery deadlines and lost business from transit authorities that canceled contracts over reliability concerns.
Foxx’s spokesman referred the newspaper’s questions about the mayor’s work with DesignLine to the White House. A White House official told the paper that all cabinet nominees are required to sign an ethics pledge that prohibits them from participation in matters that directly relate to their former employers.
As DOT secretary, Foxx would oversee multiple agencies that regulate his former employer, including the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
While the transportation post isn’t as high-profile as some other cabinet slots, it deals with pivotal issues that impact the economy and the lives of every day people. Foxx would come to the department weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration furloughed thousands of air-traffic controllers and proposed closing dozens of airport towers because of mandatory spending cuts known as sequestration.
Under pressure from industry groups and the public, Congress has since given the agency authority to shift funds to head off the furloughs and closures.
Other budget challenges loom: the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which for decades has paid for the construction and maintenance of the nation’s highway and transit systems, is nearly broke. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the fund will have a $44 billion shortfall in a decade.
Card describes the job as part banker, part policy setter, part regulator and part investigator. Foxx doesn’t need to be an expert on everything, Card said, and he can tap a wealth of knowledge inside and outside the department.
He said Foxx shouldn’t have too much angst about the confirmation process.
“I would say enjoy it,” Card said. “Have a good time.”