'Unfit for public office': Trump nominates loyalist who voted to defund Amtrak to sit on its board of directors

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
Senate candidate Todd Rokita speaks during an election night party last May in Indianapolis. (Photo: Darron Cummings/AP)

The ad begins with a photograph of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama standing shoulder-to-shoulder, embracing and smiling broadly, before flashing to Colin Kaepernick and other San Francisco 49ers players — all three of them African-American — kneeling in protest during the national anthem.

“The liberal elites disrespect our flag,” a narrator ominously declares as a camera pans dramatically over Arlington National Cemetery. “They riot in our streets,” he says a little later, now as anti-Trump protesters fill the screen. Then comes Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and, superimposed on the image of her, the words “welfare dependency.”

The advertisement, which ran in the spring of 2018, earned denunciation from local African-American clergy. “The party of Lincoln should feel a sense of shame that racial fear is being used at this stage of the game,” a reverend from Fort Wayne, Ind., said. A local Republican functionary refused to defend the ad, which he claimed rather improbably to have not seen.

The candidate who ran the ad was Todd Rokita, who had steadily risen through the ranks of Indiana’s Republican establishment over the past two decades, serving as the secretary of state and, later, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now he was hoping to win a Republican primary for Indiana’s Senate seat, a contest in which he aligned himself closely to President Trump on virtually all major issues. In fact, the embrace was so tight that the Trump reelection campaign told him to take down signs that falsely said that Rokita had been endorsed by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

Rokita lost the primary race, but he has remained a Trump loyalist, as well as a friend of fellow Indiana native Pence. And now he has found a way back into official Washington’s halls of power, having been nominated by Trump to serve on the board of directors for Amtrak, the public entity that controls passenger train transport in the United States. The position requires Senate confirmation.

Colin Kaepernick, center, and other San Francisco 49ers players kneeling in protest during the national anthem. (Photo: via YouTube)

The nomination has progressive groups concerned, both because of his views on government and his political career, rife as that is with controversy. “Todd Rokita is unfit for public office, full stop,” said Lizzy Price, a spokesperson for the government accountability organization Restore Public Trust. “He may satisfy Trump with his past racist comments and bigoted views, but it would be a political disaster for any senator to support his nomination.”

Price added that a “vote for Todd Rokita is a vote against public safety and public decency.”

John Feltz, director of the rail division at the Transport Workers Union of America, believes that Trump is “looking to kill Amtrak” by nominating figures like Rokita, who Feltz says has a “terrible, terrible record” on labor relations.

Most press coverage of Rokita’s nominations has focused on his votes to defund Amtrak: eight of them during his time in the House. Those votes, however, may be the least controversial of his positions, according to a close examination of his legislative and political record. That record includes at least two accusations of racial insensitivity, as well as many other controversies, from misuse of government resources to abusive behavior toward staffers.

A representative for Amtrak would not discuss the nomination with Yahoo News, referring the matter to the White House. A spokesman for the White House, Judd Deere, declined to comment on the record. Rokita sent Yahoo News a statement that read, in part, “My positions will be articulated through the formal mechanisms that the confirmation process affords.” He added that he was “honored” to be nominated.

What, exactly, led Trump to nominate Rokita is unclear. Law stipulates that the president nominate to the Amtrak board a bipartisan group of eight candidates “with general business and financial experience, experience or qualifications in transportation, freight and passenger rail transportation, travel, hospitality, cruise line, or passenger air transportation businesses, or representatives of employees or users of passenger rail transportation or a State government.”

Todd Rokita (Photo: via YouTube)

Rokita does not appear to have any business experience in these areas, though he has served on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and pilots small planes. He recently co-authored a surprising article on space exploration.

At the same time, Rokita has advocated for privatizing the Federal Aviation Administration, arguing in a 2016 op-ed that “the federal government is incapable of doing just about anything more efficiently or innovatively than the private sector.” Two years before that, he wrote another op-ed, this one criticizing medical testing for pilots as “contributing nothing to safety.”

A lawyer by training, Rokita worked on George W. Bush’s recount effort in Florida in 2000, then was elected Indiana’s secretary of state two years later. His main contributions appear to have been pushing for stricter voting laws and attempting to decrease the number of polling sites across the state, common Republican tactics that, critics have charged, are intended to suppress minority turnout.

In 2007, Rokita complained at a Republican Party event about the long-standing allegiance between Democrats and African-Americans. “Who’s the master and who’s the slave in that relationship?” Rokita mused. One African-American member of the Indiana delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives called the comment “appalling.”

Ever an apt reader of political crosswinds, Rokita ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, riding the tea party current to Washington. He shared many of the convictions and animosities of the tea party, which were focused on President Obama. At a town hall in 2013, for example, he said that Obama “has no regard for the Constitution and thinks he can do things contrary to the law,” in what may have been a reference to the Affordable Care Act. He called for Obama to be impeached.

Rokita has not been troubled by what some say is Trump’s abuse of constitutional authority, though he did call Trump “vulgar” in a 2016 interview. He was behind the campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at the time, before becoming an ardent Trump supporter.

An Amtrak train waits at a platform prior to its departure at Union Station in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

If he is confirmed to the Amtrak board, Rokita will be yet another Trump appointee with an antipathy to government regulation now in charge of a government agency. Rokita never shied away from expressing that antipathy. He spoke out, for example, against tougher gun control measures a short time after a gunman murdered 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Asked whether that shooting should lead to some restrictions on gun ownership, Rokita appeared to almost take offense at the suggestion. “We have a God-given right to defend ourselves, from each other, from our government, and that God-given right is manifested in the Constitution,” he told an interviewer about four months after the massacre. (Firearms are allowed on Amtrak trains, though with some restrictions.)

Yet even as he derided coastal elites from his perch on Capitol Hill, Rokita grew comfortable in Washington. In 2017, an eight-page memo leaked describing Rokita’s lavish demands to staffers chauffeuring him around his district. “Please do not interrupt his prep time with unnecessary conversation,” one bullet point read. “Take precautions to avoid sudden acceleration or braking,” read another. “The goal is to provide as smooth a ride as possible.” Staffers were to carry around a supply box — called the “Football,” presumably in reference to the “nuclear football” of launch codes that accompanies a president wherever he goes — that included everything from Rokita’s checkbook to lozenges.

More reports followed of a “toxic work environment,” as a Chicago Tribune headline put it, with the ensuing article describing Rokita as “a boss known for micromanaging and yelling at his staff.”

All this came as Rokita was running for the Senate, hoping to challenge incumbent Joe Donnelly, a centrist Democrat, in the general election. Mike Braun, an entrepreneur, easily won the Republican primary and subsequently beat Donnelly in the general election.

But though the primary had been a tough fight, Rokita stood by Braun in the primary. “He earned a lot of chits after that primary,” says one Indiana GOP insider who asked for anonymity in order not to compromise relationships. “People took notice.”

People are now taking notice of Rokita again, though the attention is not of the flattering variety. Rokita will likely appreciate the paycheck, as public records indicate he owes somewhere between $740,000 and $1,565,000 on eight mortgages and equity lines of credit. As an Amtrak director, Rokita stands to make about $150,000 per year, nearly three times the median household income.

Progressives hope that Rokita’s record of controversies will stall his nomination. Advocates for more train-related funding do as well. “Whether or not Mr. Rokita ends up saying the right things about Amtrak in his confirmation hearing before the Senate, he’s shown us that he doesn’t really care about passengers and the communities that depend on Amtrak,” Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of government affairs at the Rail Passengers Association, told Yahoo News. “We choose to believe him. Passengers deserve Amtrak leadership that have done the work of developing a vision for how the railroad can better serve Americans; it’s too important a position to treat as a reward for political loyalty.”

And if the appointment is not quite as outrageous as Trump’s rumored desire to have Sylvester Stallone helm the National Endowment for the Arts, it has made even some of Rokita’s ideological allies wonder. “They should have appointed Joe Biden,” jokes the Indiana GOP insider, referencing the former vice president’s famous habit of regularly riding the train back to Delaware when he was serving as a U.S. senator from that state. “Who knows more about Amtrak than him?”

Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., shown at an appearance during his Senate run, addresses voters in South Bend, Ind., last April. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

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