Slater, Rodney E. 1955–

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Rodney E. Slater 1955

Secretary of Transportation

At a Glance


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On February 14, 1997, Rodney E. Slater was sworn in as President Clintons Secretary of Transportation. Slater presides over the Dept. of Transportation and is responsible for the nations air, highway, and rail travel, as well as the Coast Guard. His departments budget of nearly $40 billion annually helps to employ 100,000 people who build, manage, plan, and maintain the nations transportation infrastructure. A longtime friend and political advisor to President Clinton, Slater has moved to the Department of Transportation after assuming a series of responsible positions in Arkansas and Washington, DC.

In making his appointment, Clinton observed that Slater has proven himself capable of building bridges both of steel and of goodwill to bring people closer together. The president added that Slater is the right person to help us meet the many transportation needs and challenges we face as we enter the 21st century.

Slater was born in 1955 in Marianna, Arkansas, a poverty-stricken rural community with few opportunities for children of any race. Nevertheless he was an enterprising youngster who knew that, if he wanted things, hed have to obtain them himself. At the age of six he began to put this philosophy to work, picking cotton alongside his mother in order to earn enough money to buy a bicycle. He continued to pick cotton and peaches throughout his childhood and youth, thereby supplementing the family income and making extra money to save or spend as he chose.

Slater was a good student who earned a scholarship to Eastern Michigan Univ. He served as captain of the football team and distinguished himself as a competitive speaker. In his senior year he was a national quarter-finalist in forensics (competitive debate). Dennis Beagen, Slaters forensic coach at Eastern Michigan, recalled Slater as a very disciplined, goal-oriented young man who was driven by his own competitiveness. He wasnt competing against the other students. He was competing against his own measure of success.

That desire to excel continued at the University of Arkansas, where Slater earned his law degree in 1980. While he was a student at the University of Arkansas, he was introduced to then-governor Bill Clinton by his new wifes father, Henry Wilkins III. Slaters father-in-law felt

At a Glance

Full name, Rodney Earl Slater; born February 23, 1955, in Marianna, AK; married, wifes name Cassandra Wilkins; children: BridgetteJosette.Education: Eastern Michigan University, B.A, 1977; University of Arkansas, J.D., 1980.

Arkansas Assistantstate Attorney General, 1980-82; assistant to Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, 1983-87; Arkansas State University, director ofgovemmental relations, 1987-93; member, Arkansas State Highway Commission, 1987-93; Federal Highway Administration, Washington, DC, director, 1993-97; Department of Transportation, Washington, DC, secretary, 1997-.

Addresses: Office United States Department of Transportation, Washington, DC 20590.

strongly that Clinton could succeed in national politics, and the whole family became active Clinton supporters.

Upon graduation from law school, Slater went to work as an assistant Attorney General for the state of Arkansas. He also campaigned intensely for Clinton and soon found himself in the governors closest circle of advisors. From 1983 until 1987 he served as one of Clintons executive assistants, first for Economic and Community Programs and later as Special Assistant for Community and Minority Affairs. In 1987, Clinton gave Slater a new task, appointing the young attorney to the Arkansas Highway Commission. Slater found his niche with the Highway Commission and was promoted to Chairman in 1992.

His work with a state Highway Commission helped to prepare Slater for the much larger task that awaited him when Clinton became president in 1993. Slater was named Administrator of the Federal Highway Admin., a massive govt. entity charged with building and maintaining federal highways. Slater was given a mandate to plan the future of Americas highways in the 21st century, and he created the Natl.Highway System, a projected 160,000-mile network of roads-new and existing-that will link the lower 48 states and improve transportation in Alaska and Hawaii.

To quote the Los Angeles Times, Slaters work with the Federal Highway Commission earned [him] recognition as a rising star among the second-tier of Clinton appointees. When a strong earthquake, centered in Northridge, California, destroyed some of the major highways and bridges serving Los Angeles in 1994, Slater earned accolaides for moving quickly to repair the damage. Slater was entering his fourth year with the Federal Highway Administration when he was selected by President Clinton for the position of Secretary of Transportation. Clintons choice for the new Transportation Secretary was lauded by Democrats and Republicans alike, many of whom viewed Slater as capable of building more than just steel highway bridges. Praise came from private industry as well, with trucking and airline executives hailing Slaters appointment as an opportunity for real progress. Among the few dissenters was consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who questioned Slaters commitment to the safety of Americas highways and air travel. Nader characterized Slater in the New York Times as basically an accommodationist.

As Secretary of Transportation, Slater is forced to make many difficult decisions. Despite shrinking govt. budgets and escalating costs for transportation needs, he must prioritize a vast array of existing and brand-new projects, balance the issues of safety and expediency in travel, and oversee cooperative ventures between the federal and state govts. An official who has been known to travel extensively in conjunction with his responsibilities, Slater is deeply committed to engineering decisions that will enhance American transportation into the 21st century. Thomas Donohue, president of the American Trucking Assn., told the New York Times that Slater had earned the appointment by coming from very, very poor roots in Arkansas, working his way through college and law school, working on the [Clinton] campaign and taking a real job in Washington. Donohue added: [Slater] didnt go over and become one of those White House commentators on the world. He took a real job building highways in this country, and he did a great job.

As for himself, Slater calls his job the opportunity of a lifetime. He remarked in the Los Angeles Times, Ive been very fortunate to work in an area-transportation--that demands a sense of bipartisanship. And I have been successful in creating an image of myself as a person who believes in the promise of the American people working to solve problems.


Chicago Tribune, December 21, 1996, p. 3.

Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1996, p. A22.

New York Times, December 21, 1996, pp. 1, 10.

Washington Post, December 21, 1996, p. A14.

Additional information supplied by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

Anne Janette Johnson