Drew Lewis, Reagan transport secretary during strike, dies

PHILADELPHIA – Drew Lewis, a businessman who served as U.S. transportation secretary under President Ronald Reagan during the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike, has died at age 84.

Lewis, who lived on a farm in Lower Salford, in the Philadelphia suburbs, died Wednesday in Prescott, Arizona, of complications from pneumonia, said his son, Andy Lewis.

As transportation secretary, Lewis was the Republican administration’s chief representative in a bitter labour dispute with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization. Reagan fired 11,400 members of the union for mounting an illegal strike.

Lewis later became CEO of Omaha, Nebraska-based transportation company Union Pacific Corp., guiding its merger with the Southern Pacific and the Chicago and North Western railroads.

“Even though he had a much longer and successful business career,” his son said Friday, “his love and passion was always public service and politics.”

Lewis, sworn in as the nation’s seventh secretary of transportation in January 1981, worked to divest the government of the Conrail freight line in the Northeast and cut Amtrak’s budget, believing buses and planes were more cost-effective than trains. He also trimmed transit operating subsidies and argued for shifting more responsibility for bridges and highways to the states.

But his tenure also saw the first federal gasoline tax increase in more than 20 years, the nickel hike providing funds for infrastructure improvements, including mass transit projects. In backing the increase, Reagan described it as a “user fee” rather than a tax since it was part of the cost of gasoline.

The 1981 dispute with the air traffic controllers, over pay, staffing levels and other issues, turned into a historic standoff in the first year of the Reagan administration. Lewis took charge of talks with the union and negotiated a three-year contract, which was soundly rejected by members.

About 12,000 controllers walked off the job on Aug. 3, 1981, in a strike that violated federal law and court injunctions. Reagan fired those who did not return to work, and the union lost its federal certification as the bargaining agent for controllers.

In the aftermath, the Reagan administration was bitterly criticized by organized labour advocates.

Lewis, in 1986, three years after resigning his Cabinet post, was granted an honorary degree during commencement at Haverford College, which was founded by Quakers. He took off the academic hood and returned the degree because of protests from the faculty, telling the crowd he was acting out of respect for the college’s Quaker principle of consensus.

“I feel that with great regret and probably the saddest thing that ever happened to me in my life, was the impact that I knew I had on so many people,” he said at the commencement, according to a transcript of the speech supplied by his son. “I feel that I did the proper thing.”

Lewis was born Andrew Lindsay Lewis Jr. on Nov. 3, 1931, in Philadelphia and was called Drew from childhood. He earned degrees from Haverford and Harvard University’s business school.

He was a lifelong friend of Richard S. Schweiker, who was Reagan’s secretary of health and human services and, before that, a congressman and two-term U.S. senator. Lewis managed most of Schweiker’s campaigns, ran Gerald Ford’s presidential primary campaign in Pennsylvania in 1976 and advised Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign.

In 1974, Lewis ran for governor, but he lost to incumbent Milton Shapp, a Democrat. He attributed the loss to a Watergate-era backlash against Republicans.

Earlier, he amassed a fortune as a businessman. From 1960 to 1969, he worked for American Olean Tile Inc., founded by Schweiker’s father. He later ran Simplex Wire and Cable Co. and Snelling & Snelling Inc., an employment agency, before launching his own consulting firm, Lewis & Associates.

In 1971, he became a bankruptcy trustee of the Reading Railroad, guiding it as it was absorbed into the federally subsidized Consolidated Railroad Corp., or Conrail.

Lewis became chairman and chief executive officer of Warner Amex Cable Communications Inc. after leaving government.

He was twice arrested on drunken-driving charges, in 1995 and 2001, and underwent treatment for alcohol abuse.

He married his wife, Marilyn Lewis, in 1950. She later served as a state representative. They had four children, one of whom died in infancy.