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Cabinet post caps Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx's steep ascent

By Steve Harrison, Curtis Tate and Kevin Thibodeaux
sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

WASHINGTON Anthony Foxx, who became the city’s youngest mayor four years ago, breezed into becoming the nation’s 17th transportation secretary Thursday morning after a 100-0 vote in the U.S. Senate.

Foxx, 42, will join President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, where he will oversee the nation’s highway, transit, aviation and rail networks. It caps a remarkable rise for the West Charlotte High and Davidson College graduate, who helped bring the Democratic National Convention to Charlotte in 2012 and then fought high-profile battles with state legislators over the future of Charlotte’s airport and members of his own party over whether to build a streetcar.

At the start of Thursday’s vote, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said Foxx, a Democrat, would be a “superb” leader of the nation’s transportation system.

“He understands the lay of the land and he has done it,” Rockefeller said.

After the Senate vote, Foxx called a special City Council meeting Monday afternoon in which he said he will resign as mayor. He will then be sworn in by the White House, perhaps next week.

The City Council will then select a mayor who will serve until December, after the November city election. Foxx couldn’t be reached Thursday, but he released a statement that said he was “honored” by the Senate’s vote.

In Washington for his own confirmation hearing Thursday, U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, a North Carolina Democrat and longtime Foxx mentor, said he was elated to hear of Foxx’s unanimous confirmation.

“I don’t know that I’d be more proud of one of my two sons,” said Watt. “I’m like a proud papa.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation faces an immediate problem in finding a sustainable funding stream for badly needed improvements to roads, bridges and transit systems. It also has struggled to replace the country’s radar-based air-traffic-control system, which dates to the 1950s, with a modern, satellite-based system.

The Highway Trust Fund, which was created in the 1950s to fund the construction and maintenance of the Interstate Highway System, is going broke.

Federal gasoline tax revenue has become insufficient to support the fund, and Congress has bailed it out with more than $50 billion from the U.S. Treasury in the past five years.

The 18.4-cents-a-gallon tax has remained unchanged in two decades, and Foxx will have to consider whether to lobby the president to replace it with something else. One problem for the Highway Trust Fund is that Americans are driving less, and they are driving more fuel-efficient cars, such as hybrids.

Foxx’s new job also comes with an enormous responsibility: safety.

Ray LaHood, the outgoing transportation secretary, made the difficult decision to ground the new Dreamliner jet after problems with the jet’s lithium-ion batteries. Moments after Foxx was confirmed, families from the last U.S. commercial airline crash – Continental Flight 3407 in 2009 – called on Foxx to strengthen rules governing pilot training and certification.

Two other ex-mayors have become transportation secretary. Federico Peña, who was the first transportation secretary under President Bill Clinton, had been mayor of Denver, Colo. Neil Goldschmidt was mayor of Portland, Ore., when Jimmy Carter tapped him for transportation secretary in 1979.

Foxx was first elected to the City Council in 2005. He became mayor in 2009 in a mild upset after narrowly defeating Republican John Lassiter.

In his first two-year term, Foxx was cautious, backing initiatives such as having the city support schools and libraries during the fiscal crisis that impacted Mecklenburg County after the recession. He developed a friendship with President Obama, and was often invited to the White House in 2010 and 2011 as members of White House-appointed task forces.

That relationship helped the city land the Democratic National Convention, which vaulted Foxx onto the national stage.

Foxx’s political career has been known for his desire to bring two sides together. But his second term was marked by a series of long-running disputes that threatened to tarnish his legacy.

Despite having a 9-2 Democratic majority on the City Council, Foxx lost a vote in June 2012 over a nearly $1 billion capital plan that the mayor said is critical to Charlotte’s future. Foxx and council members then debated the merits of building a streetcar for months, with the discussion often degenerating into bickering. At one point, in a speech, the mayor questioned whether streetcar opponents were blocking the project because it would pass through mostly minority neighborhoods.

In January, a bill was introduced in the N.C. General Assembly that would take away Charlotte Douglas International Airport from city control and hand to an independent authority. For Foxx, the bill – filed without consulting the city – was a personal insult.

But in the last month, the issues that had bedeviled the mayor were solved with surprising ease.

New City Manager Ron Carlee – whom Foxx supported hiring – created a plan to build the streetcar without using property taxes.

Council members voted for it. They then voted for an $800 million capital plan.

And this week the GOP-controlled legislature said the airport bill was unlikely to be considered this session.

“In a city of 700,000 people, if you don’t have a wrinkle, you aren’t doing something right,” said Democratic council member David Howard, a Foxx supporter. “I give him credit for leadership. Most people don’t know that Anthony was involved with a different way to get the streetcar done. All of that took a fair amount of leadership on his part. It was piece by piece.”

He said city leaders he spoke with at the recent Clinton Global Initiative in Chicago are excited about having Foxx leading the U.S. DOT.

“When it comes to the fact that so many transportation issues are local, there are so many people looking forward to having him in that role,” Howard said.

During the confirmation process, Foxx cited his experience with transportation issues, such as the expansion of Charlotte’s light-rail line, a new intermodal rail yard under construction at Charlotte Douglas and the implementation of several critical highway projects.

The White House released a statement Thursday from the president that said, “Anthony knows firsthand that investing in our roads, bridges and transit systems is vital to creating good jobs and ensuring American businesses can grow and compete in a 21st century global economy.”

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said in a floor speech Thursday that Foxx was “well-prepared” to lead the transportation department.

“I have the utmost confidence he will serve in this role with great distinction,” she said.

As transportation secretary, Foxx could have an impact on whether local and state projects receive federal funding.

The city, for instance, is seeking a $63 million federal grant to build the streetcar line that Foxx championed. The state is trying to build high-speed rail from Charlotte to Raleigh, another project Foxx supports.

Foxx will have a tough act to follow in LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who was transportation secretary for four years.

LaHood, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, leveraged his strong ties with lawmakers at the department. He managed billions of dollars in spending on infrastructure, from bike paths to highway interchanges, as part of Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus.

Many in transportation policy circles wanted LaHood to stay. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said LaHood would be ranked as one of the top transportation secretaries ever.

But Blumenauer, a leading proponent of transit in Congress, said he looked forward to working with Foxx.

“He understands the challenges,” Blumenauer said. “I think he will be a solid partner.”

In his statement to the media, Foxx said: “Safer, more efficient transportation can make a difference in every American’s life. I’ve seen it firsthand in Charlotte, and I’m looking forward to continuing the President’s commitment to improve transportation in communities across the country once I’m sworn in as the next Transportation Secretary.”

It’s possible Foxx could return to North Carolina after serving in Obama’s Cabinet. The mayor briefly considered running for governor last year, and could make a run for the job in 2016 or 2020. Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed to this story.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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