As mayor of Charlotte, what it called one of America’s most vibrant cities, the White House said Foxx has the firsthand knowledge needed to create jobs and compete in a globe economy. The White House praised Foxx’s ability to integrate local, state and federal resources to meet transportation challenges.
Federal officials cited his work on the Charlotte streetcar project to bring a streetcar line through the center of the city, expanding Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and extending the city’s light rail system north to UNC Charlotte.
Some of Foxx’s accomplishments that the White House has praised have been questioned closer to home, however.
The mayor is fighting an effort to shift control of Charlotte-Douglas from the city to an independent authority – a move Foxx has been stridently against. Local business leaders and some legislators have said they are worried the city has been meddling in airport affairs, a charge Foxx has denied.
The streetcar project, which Foxx is launching with a $25 million federal grant, is in limbo. The mayor has been unable to convince City Council members to approve expanding the 1.5-mile line currently under construction, and the streetcar has been the cause of a nearly year-long impasse over the city passing a nearly $1 billion capital budget.
Foxx, who has called Obama a friend, was elected mayor in 2009. He was re-elected in November 2011 with nearly 70 percent of the vote. He also is a lawyer for Charlotte hybrid bus maker DesignLine.
After a year on the national stage and calls to run for governor, Foxx – who turns 42 Tuesday – announced that he would leave office at the end of the year to spend more time with his family.
“I never intended to be mayor for life,” he told the Charlotte Observer.
It’s unclear if he’ll resign before his Senate confirmation hearing or wait until he would be confirmed.
The 11-member City Council will choose a replacement to fill the remaining months of Foxx’s term, which ends in December.
Obama has been under pressure to add more diversity to his Cabinet. Attorney General Eric H. Holder is now the only African-American to lead a Cabinet department. The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized Obama for the lack of minority candidates in a terse letter last month.
“The people you have chosen to appoint in this new term have hardly been reflective of this country’s diversity,” Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, wrote.
“Everyone who has served since 1992 have all checked the box,” said Joshua Schank, president of the Washington D.C.-based Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank. “The administration has seen it as a need to be filled, be it a minority cabinet member, a female, or someone from the opposite party. Any transportation expertise is usually secondary.”
If confirmed, Foxx would replace Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican who announced in January that he would leave the job once a successor is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
It would also make Foxx the 14th in line to be president should something happen to the president, the vice president and the others ahead of him.
Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who studies federal nominations, said he didn’t expect Foxx to have a difficult nomination process. He thought Foxx’s road to Washington from Charlotte instead of after serving in Congress, for example, could help him.
“Sometimes it better not to be in the Washington morass,” Tobias said. “He has a different perspective. He has the perspective as a mayor from a progressive state. And that’s valuable.”
He said Foxx will likely be questioned about his lack of direct transportation experience, but Tobias cited Foxx has a relevant experience leading a city that is a major transportation hub that includes one of the country’s busiest airports and junction of two interstate highways.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee could host hearings on Foxx as early as late next month or June, Tobias estimated. The full Senate will have to confirm him. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairs the committee, which has only one member from the Carolinas – Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. If confirmed, Foxx could be on the job by July 4th, Tobias said.
Foxx doesn’t have an extensive transportation background, though he has some Washington experience. In addition to his work on the national convention and city-related lobbying visits, the Davidson College graduate served on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee from 1999 to 2001. Previously he worked for two years in the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department.
The transportation secretary leads a staff of almost 60,000 people across the country. Foxx is interested in how transit can shape urban development, and he shares the Obama administration’s views on high-speed rail and creating walkable cities with development clustered around transit stops. The mayor doesn’t have much experience in building highways, which is a major part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s budget.
Two presidents tapped mayors directly to become transportation secretary: Bill Clinton appointed Federico Pena, who had been mayor of Denver. Jimmy Carter nominated Neil Goldschmidt, who was mayor of Portland, Oregon.
Other secretaries have entered the job with little or no transportation background.