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Slater, Rodney(1955–) - Becomes First Black on Highway Commission, Chronology, Named U.S. Secretary of Transportation

arkansas slater’s clinton federal

In March 1982, Slater left his post in the attorney general’s office to serve as deputy campaign manager for Clinton’s second gubernatorial campaign. Following the successful campaign, Slater was named special assistant to Governor Clinton in 1983 and was promoted to executive assistant in 1985. In 1987, Slater was hired by Arkansas State University in Jonesboro to serve as the director of government relations and also appointed by Governor Clinton as the first black member of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Commission.

As a member of the state highway commission and an administrator at Arkansas State, Slater focused on the economic development and transportation issues of the state’s rural Mississippi Delta region. At Slater’s U.S. Transportation Secretary Confirmation hearing, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette , Arkansas republican Senator Tim Hutchinson praised Slater’s role on the highway commission as “putting aside political differences to do what was best for the state.” Hutchinson also said that “Rodney, without hesitation, tackled the great challenge of improving a poor rural state’s infrastructure … He took on that challenge, not trying to please, but trying to do the right thing.” Slater was also instrumental in initiating the “Mississippi Delta Symposium on Its People, Its Problems, Its Potential” at Arkansas State University. The symposium brought together a wide array of business leaders and local and state politicians to discuss current topics regarding economic development and job growth. As a result of his service, Slater gained the respect of legislators and business leaders throughout the state for his interpersonal skills and putting people first. He served as chairman of the commission from 1992 to 1993.

Following the 1992 election, President Bill Clinton named Slater the first African American administrator of the Federal Highway Administration in June 1993. As administrator, Slater successfully worked with Congress to pass the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995, which assigned 160,000 miles of roads in the United States as part of a national highway system. More importantly, the selected roads were eligible for $13 billion in additional federal funding. During Slater’s term, the infrastructure investment in federal highway construction increased from $21 billion to $25 billion. Along with the increased funding, Slater and his staff worked to improve financing and contracting techniques to streamline the contracting process and improve quality.

Despite Slater’s popularity and success on Capitol Hill, he was harshly criticized by consumer advocates led by Ralph Nader, who sent a letter to President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore calling for the firing of Slater because of his support of an amendment to the National Highway System Designation Act to abolish the national speed limit of fifty-five miles per hour. According to Traffic World , Nader also accused Slater of “currying industry’s favor at the expense of motorists’ safety” regarding the trucking industry’s lobbying efforts to increase the maximum allowable weight limit for trucks from 80,000 pounds to 175,000 pounds. Slater’s response to Nader’s criticism was that he was only carrying out the implementation of policies that had already been put in motion by Congress.



Born in Tutwyler, Mississippi on February 23


Arrested with other students and put on trial in Marianna, Georgia on riot charges


Graduates with B.A. from Eastern Michigan University


Graduates with J.D. from University of Arkansas Law School


Works in Arkansas State Attorney General’s Office


Serves as deputy campaign manager for Governor Bill Clinton


Serves as special assistant to Governor Bill Clinton


Serves as director of Government Relations, Arkansas State University


Serves as administrator for the U.S. Federal Highway Administration


Serves as U.S. secretary of transportation


Becomes partner in Patton Boggs law firm

Named U.S. Secretary of Transportation

In 1997, Slater was nominated by President Clinton and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate to be the thirteenth U.S. secretary of transportation. He was the second federal highway administrator (John Volpe was the first), and the second African American (Bill Coleman was the first) to serve in the secretary post. Within the first eighteen months of his term, Congress passed the largest highway bill in U.S. history. The Transportation Equity Act guaranteed a record $200 billion in funds for surface transportation. Also, department negotiators led by Slater helped to avert a workers’ strike against Amtrak and successfully lobbied for the Amtrak Reform and Accountability Act to improve the country’s passenger rail system.

Another notable accomplishment of Slater’s administration was increasing the number of open skies agreements with countries around the world to expand the aviation system and remove restrictions on commercial airline travel, including the first agreement with an African nation (Tanzania). Slater organized the first major international aviation conference in nearly fifty-five years to encourage countries to move beyond bilateral open skies agreements toward regional multilateral agreements. The first multilateral open skies agreement was signed shortly thereafter between the United States, Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, and Brunei.

On the domestic front, Slater worked to decrease the highway fatality rate and to expand safety regulations on motor vehicles. The Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999 established the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to enforce safety regulations and maximize public participation in motor safety. As a result, the National Safety Council’s 1999 Injury Facts publication reported that seat belt use nationally rose to an all-time high of 70 percent.

After the 2000 presidential election, Slater left the Department of Transportation to join the law firm of Patton Boggs as head of its transportation practice group in Washington D.C. Although he was rumored to have political aspirations, he continued to stay focused on issues of transportation. In 2005, Slater agreed to serve as a representative for the ground workers union of Northwest Airlines on the company’s board of directors.

Slater’s rise from poverty has been an inspiration to many people. Thomas Donohue, president of the American Trucking Association, told the New York Times that “[Slater’s] earned this by coming from very, very poor roots n Arkansas, working his way through college and law school, working on the campaign, and taking a real job in Washington…. He took a real job building highways in this country and he did a great job.”

Slater, Samuel - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Samuel Slater, Social and Economic Impact [next]

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