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FreightWaves Classics/Leaders: Peña first Hispanic-American Secretary of Transportation

September is National Hispanic Heritage Month

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September is National Hispanic Heritage Month, and FreightWaves Classics helps to celebrate it with a profile of Federico Peña.  

Peña was the first Hispanic-American to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation when he was appointed by President Bill Clinton and approved by the U.S. Senate. 

Background and early public service

However, Peña had been successful for a number of years before his Cabinet appointment. Born in Laredo, Texas, on March 15, 1947, Peña earned a Bachelor of Arts (1969) and Juris Doctor (1972) from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas School of Law, respectively.

After graduating from law school, Peña eventually settled in Denver, Colorado. He established a law practice and was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1979, and was elected Minority Leader before leaving the House in 1983 to run for mayor of Denver. 

Federico Peña is sworn is as mayor of Denver, Colorado. (Photo: coloradovirtuallibrary.org)
Federico Peña is sworn is as mayor of Denver, Colorado. (Photo: coloradovirtuallibrary.org)

Peña defeated incumbent mayor William H. McNichols Jr., becoming the first Hispanic mayor of Denver in 1983. Peña was re-elected in 1987. During his tenure as mayor, Peña led the effort to build a new airport. In addition, his vision (“Imagine a Great City”) led to the revitalization of the Denver economy with the construction of a new convention center,  neighborhood retail efforts, an expansion of the city’s library and performing arts center and major road improvements. The effort to land a new Major League Baseball franchise in Denver began while Peña was mayor. The Colorado Rockies began playing in Denver in 1993.

Federico Peña served as both U.S. Secretary of Transportation and U.S. Secretary of Energy. (Photo: doe.gov)
Federico Peña served as both U.S. Secretary of Transportation and U.S. Secretary of Energy. (Photo: doe.gov)

The Clinton administration

Peña headed transportation-related issues for the 1992 Clinton-Gore transition team. He also advised President-elect Clinton on transportation issues; Clinton chose Peña to head the United States Department of Transportation.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Clinton wanted Peña to “fuse community and business leaders with local, state and federal governments in a strategy of public investment in public works projects to replace jobs lost in defense cuts.” Generally speaking, that did not take place.

When Peña was nominated, Raul Yzaguirre, then-president of the National Council of La Raza said that he “is one of the most qualified people for the job in terms of experience.” Some of Peña’s toughest critics on the Denver City Council were quoted as saying that Clinton made a wise choice. The Times quoted City Councilwoman Kathy Reynolds, “It’s true that Federico left Denver a better place than he found it.”

Peña’s earthquake recovery effort in Los Angeles in early 1994 was considered one of his key accomplishments. He flew to Los Angeles while fires from the Northridge earthquake were still burning; within days he had worked with local jurisdictions while also eliminating federal red tape that would have delayed reconstruction of highways and rail lines. With his leadership, millions of dollars were routed into the earthquake area, and recovery was faster than predicted.

A portion of the Antelope Valley Freeway collapsed the morning of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. A tractor-trailer and a motorhome sits stranded on the raised stretch of the Interstate 5 freeway. 
(Photo: ahundredyearsofearthquakesinlosangeles.wordpress.com)
A portion of the Antelope Valley Freeway collapsed the morning of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. A tractor-trailer and a motorhome sits stranded on the raised stretch of the Interstate 5 freeway.
(Photo: ahundredyearsofearthquakesinlosangeles.wordpress.com)

As Secretary of Transportation between 1993 and 1997, Peña strongly supported federal investments in highway and transit projects. In addition, his department negotiated aviation agreements with 40 nations, opening new markets and routes across the globe for U.S. airlines and cargo carriers.

Nonetheless, the Washington Post stated in an article that “the airline industry viewed Peña as someone who injected too much politics into the FAA to the point it interfered with the FAA’s safety function.”

Some of Peña’s other accomplishments were highlighted by President Clinton. “As Secretary of Transportation, Federico Peña has proven himself a talented leader of a large and complex government agency,” Clinton said while meeting with the press in December 1996. “He found ways to encourage new technologies, promote safety and protect the environment.”

Secretary of Energy

Peña had intended to leave President Clinton’s cabinet after a single term. However, when Clinton was reelected, he prevailed upon Peña to serve as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy from 1997 to 1998. Peña held the post for 13 months, leading a massive department with 16,000 employees and a budget of $18 billion. 

Peña served as the eighth U.S. Secretary of Energy (Photo: youtube.com)

As Secretary, Peña developed the Clinton administration’s Comprehensive National Energy Strategy and oversaw the largest privatization in the history of the U.S. government – the $3.654 billion sale of the Elk Hills Oil Field, which had been known as Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 1. In addition, his department developed the Clinton administration’s strategy for oil and gas development in the Caspian Sea region and supported U.S. energy companies’ investments around the world.

Nuclear waste, energy efficiency and new science and technology research were among the issues that dominated Peña’s tenure at the U.S. Department of Energy.

FreightWaves Classics thanks C-SPAN, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and other sources for information and photos that contributed to this article.

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Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.