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Bikes, politics, and Blumenauer as Transportation Secretary?

Posted by on May 23rd, 2008 at 11:37 am

OR Bike Summit - Saturday opening-3.jpg
An animated Earl Blumenauer
speaking at the Oregon Bike
Summit a few months ago.
(All photos © J. Maus)

As the nation’s political winds shift from right to left, the future of the transportation issue in America begins to look very different.

Remember last summer, when U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters referred to “bike paths” as not being transportation infrastructure? After a stern rebuke by bike advocates, she eventually tried to apologize, but her comments were a window into how some folks on Capitol Hill still regard non-motorized transportation.

And then there was House Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who, in a debate over the Energy Bill last August referred to bicycles as “a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.” (Watch a YouTube clip of his speech here).

Going back a bit further to December of 2007, how can we forget House Rep. John Boehner, the Ohio republican who ridiculed the bicycle commuter tax benefit on the floor of the House?

New 10-foot bike lane on SE Madison-7
A sign of the times.

Those were all shocking-but-true moments for many people. But, as we saw last weekend when bicycles officially entered the national political scene not just from the words of our potential future president, but by their simple presence (in massive numbers) at a major political event — the times, as they say, are a changin’.

As gas prices continue to skyrocket and people in cities all over the country turn to human power to get around, those anti-bike comments don’t just seem out of touch, they sound downright ridiculous.

Meanwhile, no one on Capitol Hill has worn their bike lapel pin more proudly than Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

As presidential hopeful Barack Obama uttered his now famous mention of bikes and streetcars during the rally over weekend, it didn’t occur to me that maybe, just maybe, an Obama White House would include Mr. Blumenauer as Transportation Secretary.

My ride with Earl Blumenauer-3.jpg
Blumenauer, practicing what he
preaches on the streets of D.C.

That is, until I read this story published yesterday by Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes.

Mapes wrote that political upstart Steve Novick (who just narrowly lost a Senate seat to Jeff Merkley) has had his eye on Blumenauer’s job for several years and that, back in 2004, he actually “launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign…urging that Blumenauer be named secretary of transportation.”

Blumenauer has been an early and strong supporter of Obama and Mapes says, “it might not be that huge of a stretch for him [Obama] to consider the bike-and-streetcar-loving congressman from Portland.”

Blumenauer in the nation’s top transportation job would signal far more than shifting political winds — it would be more like a tornado that leaves America’s ill-fated car culture in its wake.

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Comments
  • Patrickz May 23, 2008 at 11:58 am

    Amen to that

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  • Qwendolyn May 23, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Hi-De-Ho!

    Hi-De-Hey!

    Hi-De-Hi-De-Hi-De-Ho,

    Hi-De-Hi-De-Hi-De-Hey

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  • Marion Rice May 23, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Let it be written, let it be so!

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  • Robin May 23, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Something new for my wish list!

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  • West Cougar May 23, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Advisor: Mr. President gasoline is over $5 a gallon. The voters are restless, what shall we do?

    President: Let them ride bikes.

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  • Mmann May 23, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    I\’ve no doubt Earl would be an awesome and, given the right support, downright transformative Transportation Secretary. The downside – for all of Oregon – is that Earl has spent years building the clout he now wields on the hill and it would take years for the next person to rise to that level. If offered the job I\’m sure he\’ll weigh closely the tradeoff.

    And then there\’s the shadow of Oregon\’s last Transportation Secretary (Goldschmidt) who lasted just over a year in the Carter administration.

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  • Allison May 23, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    I\’m a bit ambivilant about our very own Earl in the Cabinet – not because I don\’t want him there, I think he\’d make an excellent Sec of Trans (my backroom polico friends have said Tri-met director and former DEQ Director Fred Hanson has hinted wanting the job…but he hasn\’t paid the party dues that Blumenauer has)

    No, what worries me is giving up his seniority in Congress. Replacing Blumenauer would necessarily mean putting a freshman from Oregon\’s third – and Earl has been an amazing advocate for bicycles, alternative transportation and energy and climate change strategies. A freshman, even with identical policy positions, isn\’t likely to have the same voice in congress.

    On balance, I think maybe we\’d be better off with Earl in the cabinet – but he may not agree. Especially when you recall that when Mayor Katz has announced she was retiring, he was known to be considering a run for mayor – and getting to actually to live in Portland, rather than DC was a big draw. But he stayed in Congress, then and I suspect he might stay in congress rather than be in the cabinet.

    That said, if he vacates his seat, I want Steve Novick to run in the inevitable special election.

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  • Russell May 23, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    I said it when this subject came up in comments before: I don\’t think he should. While it would signal changing political winds, the average lifespan of a Transportation Sec. is about 2 years. The longest was under the current Bush (and actually was a Democrat), while the next 3 were: Libby Dole and the two under Clinton (4 years each). Don\’t forget that John (?) Dingell, Dean of the House, is serving his 52nd year as a Congressman.

    I believe Earl would not take such a decision lightly and would make the best political decision. If, however, he does become Trans. Sec. I want to see two things happen: 1) Novick runs for his spot in the House. 2) When Earl is done as Trans. Sec. he runs for (a) Senate or (b) Governor of Oregon.

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  • Metal Cowboy May 23, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    Wish we could clone Earl- keep in congress and have him handle transportation for the white house.
    Either way, his the man who help inspire me to put together onemillionbicycles.org Spread those seeds of sustainable change Mr. B

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  • torridjoe May 23, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    What if DeFazio took his place on that committee? Same party, same state, same committment to alternate trans if not bikes per se, and he\’s more senior than Earl, right?

    A national champion that moves our thinking about transportation would be far, far more impactful than an admittedly powerful legislative force for actual changes in law. We need to change the culture quickly, with faces that have a national platform. Earl, bless him, can\’t get the face time the Secy of Trans could get in a sympathetic Obama cabinet.

    And is there a safer seat in the US not in DC?

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  • mike May 23, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Hey Earl is a great guy no doubt, but looking at it from the outside being an individual who lives outside the Pacific Northwest…not a chance. Top positions such as Transportation Sec. are reserved for only the most powerful and highly respected. I like Earl don\’t get me wrong but he does not command the respect he deserves from some of his fellow Congressman and in that position you need to be highly regarded. I\’m sure that I will get plenty of flack for this post but I\’m just calling a spade a spade. My ex-wife is very high up in D.C. politics and I know how the city works, and in that city I don\’t see a lot of room for Earl in the White House.

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  • Allison May 23, 2008 at 2:58 pm

    \”What if DeFazio took his place on that committee? Same party, same state, same committment to alternate trans if not bikes per se, and he\’s more senior than Earl, right? \”

    Well, his priorities are different – that\’s not to say worse, they\’re wonderful – but he\’d have to vacate some committees of his own and really, the two of them together make quite a force. We\’re going to have a freshman in Hooley\’s district, and Wu is still relatively new. Walden doesn\’t help us much :).

    When you think about it, it\’s kind of a wonderful dilemma to find yourself in.

    The point about it only having a lifespan of about 2 years is quite well taken. Although I can\’t think of anyone whose held that seat under Bush that has quite the same commitment to public service that Earl does – cabinet positions usually lead into the revolving door of the private sector. I don\’t think Earl would be happy unless he could continue to serve.

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  • Allison May 23, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Mike:

    Who gets a cabinet position tends to be a highly political decision. We\’ll hope that under an Obama Administration, it\’s a political decision that takes actual competence into account, unlike the current administration. Earl isn\’t just a great public servant, he\’s a great democrat and he\’s raised a lot of money for democrats in Oregon and nationwide. He was one of the earlier supporters of Obama when superdelegates were still going for Clinton – that\’ll count for something (as the Mapes article referenced).

    Are there other candidates? Of course. Is Earl on the short list? I think it\’s safe to say yes.

    This may be the Pacific Northwest and we may be a remote province of the empire, but it\’s very clear we\’ve got something here in terms of ideas on how to handle global warming, land use, and transportation. Earl\’s leadership hasn\’t just been on behalf of Oregon (although he\’s done a good amount of money funnelling our way) but transportation as an issue nationwide.

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  • rixtir May 23, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Norm Mineta was Mayor of San Jose, and then a not-very-prominent Representative, before he was tapped as Transportation Secretary.

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  • Russell May 23, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    Mineta performed many other tasks outside of the government that made him \’suited\’ for the position. Chairing the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, working for Lockhead Martin, and working as the Secretary of Commerce. So, to say that he wasn\’t very prominent does him a disservice.

    Oh, I\’d just like to say this: [rant]Whoever winds up taking over needs to understand (as Earl does) bikes are only one part of the equation. We need trains! European/Japanese trains! With some of the trains running in Japan/Europe (upwards of 581 km/h or 360 mph) we could get from Portland to Seattle (non-stop) in under an hour. Even at half that speed it would only take an hour. Plus all of this can be run off the electrical grid, rather than in self contained engines. Can you imagine? Some people have commutes that are an hour long? How\’d you like to be able to apply for jobs in Seattle and still live in Portland? It would be a little ridiculous, but it could happen . . . Anyways [/rant]

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  • Russell May 23, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    Amendment – The 581 km/h was set by a modified train, just to do speed tests. During commercial use the TGV in France runs at an average of 320 km/h (200 mph). That would still put you in Seattle, from Portland, in under an hour.

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  • rixtir May 23, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    No disservice intended, I simply lost track of his career between Congress and the DOT.

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  • torridjoe May 24, 2008 at 12:00 am

    He has a powerful position controlling the money, that would make immense difference when it came time to legislate. But I don\’t see the culture change that\’s necessary to make those laws happen. They need a national champion, someone who can make the case to the American people that we need to change the way we fund our infrastructure. And Earl can lay out that vision.

    One hugely important bill coming up in 2010 I believe is the extension of the original Eisenhower-era transportation bill. It\’s a prime opportunity to remake our approach. I think he can change policy in Congress; at DOT he can change minds.

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  • mark May 26, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    that would be amazing. Go Earl!

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