Posted by Guest on June 28, 2017 in Blog

Ray_LaHood_official_portrait.jpgBy Annie Riley

“Arab Americans have made America a great country. You should never run away from that. You should never be ashamed of it. We should be proud of it,” exclaimed Raymond H. “Ray” LaHood, a proud second generation Arab American and life-long public servant. LaHood represented Illinois’ 18th congressional district in the US House of Representatives for 14 years before serving as the 16th Secretary of Transportation under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013. 

Back in 1895, LaHood’s grandparents left their small village of Aitou, Lebanon in search of a better future. The couple settled in Peoria, Illinois, a little over 150 miles southwest of Chicago. Commenting on his grandparents’ decision to settle in Peoria, LaHood acknowledges the seemingly random choice, stating “The only thing that we can figure out is that, when they came through Ellis Island, they didn’t particularly like New York. And the train stopped in Peoria. I mean, we can’t think of any other reason. Can you?” Thanks to immigrants like LaHood’s grandparents and the grandparents of Randy Couri, Peoria established a large Arab American community and helped to enrich the culture of the small, Midwest city.

LaHood was born in 1945 in Peoria, to his Lebanese American father Edward and his mother Mary of German descent. Edward and Mary LaHood operated a restaurant and bar. Although LaHood’s father never graduated high school, he valued education and pushed for his sons, Mike, Ray, and Steve to get an education. LaHood graduated from what is now Peoria Notre Dame High School and went on to pursue a degree in education and sociology at Canton Junior College and then Bradley University, where he earned his Bachelor of Science. 

Following university, LaHood worked as a junior high social studies teacher for six years. Through teaching the younger generation about United States’ history and government, he developed a desire to enter public service. LaHood left his job as a teacher and worked for the Youth Services Bureau, Congressman Tom Railsback (R-IL), the Illinois House of Representatives, and US House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-IL). Following Michel’s retirement in 1994, LaHood announced his candidacy for the 18th congressional district and won the seat in the US House of Representatives.

LaHood dedicated his 14 years in Congress to representing the people of Illinois and promoting bipartisanism. The Republican congressman maintained his moral and political ground and gained respect across party lines. Known for his fair and even-keeled style, LaHood presided over more debates than any other member of congress during his time in office, most notably the 1998 debate concerning the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

Barack_Obama_joking_with_Ray_LaHood_2010.jpgUpon the 2004 election of President Barack Obama to represent Illinois in the Senate, LaHood and Obama vowed to work together for their home state. This bipartisan relationship continued through Obama’s election as President in 2008 when Obama named LaHood Secretary of Transportation. LaHood was not the only Republican in Obama’s first cabinet, but he was the only Arab American. 

As Secretary, LaHood set out to fix the state infrastructure system; he told Diane Rehm, “America is one big pothole … At one time … we were the leader in infrastructure. We built the interstate system. It’s the best road system in the world, and we’re proud of it. But we’re falling behind other countries, because we have not made the investments.” During his tenure, LaHood oversaw more than 15,000 public works projects, including launching a campaign against distracted driving, building high-speed railways, increasing bike and walk paths, safeguarding the rights of aircraft passengers, and raising fuel efficiency standards for cars. Despite his successes, LaHood chose to step down in 2013 perhaps due to a lack of bipartisanism and funding. Although LaHood has retired from public service, his son Rep. Darin LaHood, continues the tradition of service. Americans are grateful for the LaHoods' dedication to public service, and AAI has honored Ray and his son Darin at AAI’s Khalil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” Awards Gala

LaHood’s parents and grandparents sacrificed their education so that their children and their children’s children could succeed. LaHood recognizes the impact that his family and community made on him, stating, “we have stood on the shoulders of those who came before … I’m very proud to be a Republican in President Obama’s administration.  But I’m even prouder to be the only Lebanese – the only Arab American – in the president’s cabinet.” LaHood attributes his success to the hard work and values his family and community instilled in him: “the importance of family, of family values, the importance of education, and the importance of playing by the rules.” Ray LaHood has left a legacy of bipartisanship that continues to inspire many public servants and Arab Americans.

Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.

Annie Riley is a 2017 summer intern at the Arab American Institute.