President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday formally introduced Pete Buttigieg as his nominee to run the Transportation Department, saying the former mayor of South Bend will play a significant role at the intersection of his administration’s plans to put the nation back on its feet after the coronavirus pandemic.
The choice of Buttigieg, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination and has an ardent following among some members of the party, will bring a dash of star power to what is normally a staid, if important, department. He also represents another first for a president-elect who has promised to build the most diverse leadership team in history: an openly gay Cabinet nominee going to the Senate for confirmation.
With Buttigieg looking on, Biden, nearly 40 years his senior, framed his choice for transportation secretary as a selection about the future of the environment, the economy and race relations.
“We selected Pete for transportation because the department is at the intersection of some of our most ambitious plans to build back better,” Biden said, using his transition’s slogan.
Buttigieg, who had few options to rise further in Indiana’s Republican-dominated state politics, thanked Biden for a new opportunity to serve the public.
“Step one in building back better, literally, is to build. Americans shouldn’t settle for less than our peers in the developed world when it comes to our roads and bridges, our railways and transit systems,” Buttigieg said. “The U.S. should lead the way. And I know that, in this administration, we will.”
Current Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has kept a fairly low profile, despite being the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Buttigieg, 38, is the youngest person named to Biden’s Cabinet and the first millennial. His introductory session continued a rollout that already has taken on some of Buttigieg’s personality.
A former campaign staffer tweeted a video of Buttigieg filling a pothole—a phenomenon he called the “natural enemy of all mayors.”
“Prepare yourself,” Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten Buttigieg, tweeted Tuesday, responding to a quip about “Infrastructure Week,” and perhaps also offering a nod to the couple’s impending arrival in the nation’s capital. Ahead of Biden’s public introduction Wednesday, Chasten added a black-and-white image of demonstrators protesting anti-gay bigotry by the federal government.
“I am beyond proud of my husband,” he tweeted. “As he heads to the stage today I’ll also be thinking of the countless path-paving and history-making civil servants who were denied their chance.”
Pete Buttigieg, who called himself a transportation fan who took long-distance Amtrak rides in college, said he proposed to his husband in a Chicago airport terminal.
“Don’t let anyone tell you O’Hare isn’t romantic,” he said.
Yet, despite the apparent ease with which the couple presented their relationship during the campaign, Buttigieg recalled being a teenager who had yet come out as gay even to himself, watching as the Senate sank President Bill Clinton’s nomination of an openly gay ambassador.
“I learned something about some of the limits that exist in this country when it comes to who is allowed to belong,” Buttigieg said. “But just as important, I saw how those limits could be challenged.”
The reaction among transportation organizations to Biden’s pick was broadly positive.
Buttigieg was selected over a handful of candidates with far deeper experience at the Transportation Department and running state transportation agencies. But Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants and an influential voice in the labor movement, said Biden had picked “an accomplished, high-profile candidate for a department other administrations have too often treated as an afterthought.”
“This appointment signals immediate focus and urgency for the nation’s transportation policy and infrastructure, a welcome change for aviation workers,” she said in a statement.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the party’s champion on infrastructure issues in the House, praised Buttigieg as a “strong choice.”
“The bottom line is with a forward-looking leader at DOT, our Nation has an incredible opportunity to create jobs, support U.S. manufacturing, reduce carbon pollution from the transportation sector, and create safer, more efficient infrastructure by investing in transportation,” DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said in a statement.
Industry organizations representing airlines, trucking companies and railroads were also quick to congratulate Buttigieg.
“Former-Mayor Buttigieg’s forward-looking approach supported by data-driven decision-making will serve him well as the next Secretary of Transportation,” Ian Jefferies, head of the Association of American Railroads, said in a statement.
If Buttigieg is confirmed, many areas of focus in his presidential campaign, beyond infrastructure, could play a part in his tenure atop the $90 billion, 55,000-employee agency.
Transportation touches countless parts of American life—highways, buses and trains for getting to work, and the sprawling freight network that Americans became acutely aware of this spring when toilet paper grew scarce. It gives Buttigieg a window to make an impact far beyond asphalt and funding formulas.
“Pete’s got a great perspective, of a mayor that solves problems and brings people together,” Biden said. “He’s got a vision of a next-generation leader, with the experience and temperament to lead change today—today—to dig us out of this economic crisis.”
That includes helping cities and states keep transit systems running for front-line workers; helping modernize airports, ports and railways; and advancing racial equity “so Zip code doesn’t determine your access to a good job,” Biden said.
The transportation sector also employs vast numbers of people in middle-class, blue-collar jobs, an important political constituency.
Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, who said she got to know Buttigieg on the campaign trail, emphasized his credentials for a job that will require him to work in every kind of community.
“He is a trailblazing leader from the industrial Midwest who understands we need to create opportunity for people of all backgrounds,” she said.