Pete Buttigieg’s star rises as $1T Biden agenda shifts toward him

Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary who holds the purse strings to much of President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, was holding forth with reporters on its impact—the promise of more electric cars, intercity train routes, bigger airports—when a pointed question came.

How would he go about building racial equity into infrastructure?

The 39-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate laid out his argument that highway design can reflect racism, noting that at least $1 billion in the bill will help reconnect cities and neighborhoods that had been racially segregated or divided by road projects.

“I’m still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a Black neighborhood … that obviously reflects racism,” he said.

Racial equity is an issue where Democratic priorities and Buttigieg’s future align. One of his greatest shortcomings as a White House candidate was his inability to win over Black voters. How he navigates that heading into the 2022 midterms will probably shape the fortunes of Biden’s agenda and the Democratic Party, if not his own prospects.

Republicans seeking to exploit the issue pounced on Buttigieg’s words.

“I heard some stuff, some weird stuff from the secretary of transportation trying to make this about social issues,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “To me, a road’s a road.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted sarcastically: “The roads are racist. We must get rid of roads.”

But Buttigieg didn’t engage and was off to his next stop, the climate summit in Scotland. There he stood for almost a dozen interviews as he promoted provisions of Biden’s bill that would build a network of electric vehicle charging stations. He also engaged with young climate activists and took photos with former President Barack Obama.

On racism in roadways, he said simply: “I don’t know who it hurts to acknowledge that harm was done and to propose doing something to fix it.”

His department later announced it would grant extra discretionary aid to help as many as 20 U.S. communities remove portions of interstates, redesign rural main streets and repurpose former rail lines. That could help places from Syracuse, New York, where many residents back a plan to tear down portions and build a walkable grid, to racially divided areas in New Orleans and St. Paul, Minnesota.

As Biden prepares to sign the infrastructure bill on Monday, eyes are turning to the man still best known as “Mayor Pete,” a newcomer whose promise of “generational change” and real-world sensibility of fixing potholes launched him to the top of the early Democratic primary contests during the 2020 campaign.

Quickly endorsing Biden after abandoning the race, Buttigieg now stands to become one of the more powerful brokers in Washington, handling the largest infusion of cash into the transportation sector since the 1950s creation of the interstate highway system.

“Armed with that much money and significant latitude in how to spend it, Buttigieg is poised to be the most influential secretary of transportation ever,” said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation. The department was founded in 1967.

In all, about $120 billion of the $550 billion in new transportation spending in the bill would come in the form of competitive grants that give Buttigieg discretion in how the money is used.

A separate social spending bill pending in the House would pour billions more dollars into the Transportation Department, which already expects to see its annual budget surge by over 50% to $140 billion.

“It’s a whole lot of money,” says Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois and transportation secretary under Obama, who in comparison presided over the release of $48 billion in transportation money in the 2009 Recovery Act. Since then, LaHood said, major federal investments in transportation have been stagnant, creating pent-up demand for road, bridge and Amtrak projects that can quickly launch.

It’s both a boon and challenge to Buttigieg, who revealed in August that he was going to become a dad with husband Chasten. He took several weeks of paternity leave to care for the twins, returning in October as Republicans criticized him for leaving his post. More recently, he juggled time keeping watch over his infant son, who was ill for three weeks and hospitalized for a respiratory illness, while he worked to address national supply chain problems.

“When somebody welcomes a new child into their family and goes on leave to take care of that child that’s not a vacation, it’s work,” he said last month. “I’m not going to apologize.”

Starting this week, Buttigieg will join other Cabinet members to pitch the plan around the country.

“Look, a lot of this sells itself because communities never needed to be persuaded that their bridge needed to be fixed or that their airport needed an upgrade or that their ports needed investment,” Buttigieg said. “They’ve been trying to get Washington to catch up to them.”

Anthony Foxx, who was Obama’s transportation secretary from 2013 to 2017, said a big challenge will be the massive operational details in the department, where Buttigieg is supported by veteran hands. Many programs are new, requiring clear guidelines to states and localities on what they are eligible for and how the money is to be awarded. “They will be managing multiple plans with very high dollar figures, creating pressure on administrative staff,” Foxx said.

On Friday, Biden said he would name a person outside the administration to be a watchdog on the disbursement of the money.

Once many programs are in place, after six to nine months, Foxx said, “that’s when the magic happens on what to fund and what may not cut the mustard.” The winners would come in the form of hundreds of grant announcements for medium-sized road projects that could accelerate into spring 2023 with the first awards for multibillion dollar bridges, intercity rail and New York’s Gateway tunnel.

As a mayor, Buttigieg was attuned to calls to fix roads and potholes. He relished talking about state-of-the-art sewer system. Now that message will be national with the stakes far greater.

“The currency of politics is exposure, and he’s getting a lot of exposure,” said Larry Grisalano, who was Buttigieg’s advertising consultant.

At the White House, staff warmly refer to him as “Secretary Mayor Pete,” and Biden has compared Buttigieg to his late son Beau. The White House celebrated Chasten’s birthday with cupcakes. “You’re the best, man,” Biden said after Buttigieg spoke at the White House over the summer.

Yet in a city laden with ambition, Buttigieg’s potential to move farther onto the national stage can make him a target.

Nina Smith, Buttigieg’s former traveling campaign press secretary, said as Biden’s top lieutenant on the bill, Buttigieg has the opportunity to lead an effort to “eradicate past injustices.” Buttigieg during the 2020 campaign was never able to win over large shares of Black voters.

“That’s an added responsibility that I think he’s very much aware of and making a central part of the work,” said Smith, a Democratic political consultant.•

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

23 thoughts on “Pete Buttigieg’s star rises as $1T Biden agenda shifts toward him

  1. Buttigieg falsely claimed that roads are racist.

    He quoted a discredited book that claimed bridges were built low in New York to prevent minorities from going to the beach.

    It’s unbelievable someone with no experience could be put in charge of supply chains and transportation. He is an abject failure on this.

    1. You live in Indianapolis….

      You can easily look at the interstate system and notice how they conveniently were placed to split the white areas of the city with the minority areas of the city…. 65/70 are both this way…

      You are being purposefully obtuse in your comment

    2. @James
      And you can easily look at the entire interstate system and realize that rural communities were far more negatively impacted by the development of the interstate system than urban areas. Get real. Farmland was split up and small towns are now completely bypassed.

    3. Rich, to quote John McEnroe, you cannot be serious. It’s plainly obvious what was done. People were red-lined into certain parts of town, then interstates were constructed through those parts of town.

      I think the 80’s were a heck of a lot harder on farmers than the construction of the interstate highway system decades earlier but what do I know?

      https://www.iowapbs.org/iowapathways/mypath/farm-crisis-1980s

    4. @James,

      The interstate system was designed to facilitate movement between cities. To suggest that the interstates were designed to split the racial makeup of a city is 100% race-washing.

    5. @DJ, perhaps you should better understand redlining in our city, and how it was a precursor to how then interstate system was then planned through our city… Then you would understand the city planning over the last 50 years

      Books are free at the library, and you can also attend community sessions where these concepts are debated in a mature and lively manner instead of people pretending our history did not exist on the internet like yourself.

      Do you also believe that UniGov was a pure coincidence of an emergency when the city was suddenly 42% minority after the white flight?

    6. The interstate moving people BETWEEN cities was fine.

      When it came to the routes chosen to move people THROUGH cities … as James points out, the data is out there.

      Unless you magically think the best routes THROUGH a town just happened to be through the poor parts of town … the ones where “those people” had been allowed to live via redlining.

      https://www.wrtv.com/news/local-news/indianapolis/under-the-highway-how-interstates-divided-indianapolis-neighborhoods-and-displaced-17-000-people

      The best thing Indianapolis could do is tear out all interstates within two miles of Monument Circle. You want to get TO downtown quickly? Sure. You want to go THROUGH town? Take 465.

  2. What an obscene puff piece for such an empty suit.

    Quote: It’s both a boon and challenge to Buttigieg, who revealed in August that he was going to become a dad with husband Chasten.

    Really? Who inseminated who? And who gave birth?

    Nauseating, just nauseating…but welcome to secular-humanist America.

    1. Two kids have someone in the world to provide and care for them and that’s your response.

      Pro-life indeed, Bob. Would you have preferred their mom have aborted them?

      And you wonder why pro-life “religious” folks are losing the culture war and their churches are closing.

    2. Get real, Joe B. There are dozens of heterosexual couples would have been more than happy to adopt those kids. But you can be sure that, sooner or later, their real mother (and maybe father) will come out and sell her story to the tabloids for big bucks…something she wouldn’t be able to do if those two homosexuals hadn’t adopted them.

      Your ignorance of pro-life folks and closing churches is astounding, Joe B. Pro-life folks in fundamentalist churches who are not following society’s foolish, God-denying trends are in growing congregations. The dying churches, the mainline ones, are those who are embracing the sinfulness of this culture, especially as regards abortion on demand and homosexual “normalcy.”

      But you’ll be happiest when all traces of Christianity are banished from our culture, won’t you? And what will replace Judaeo-Christian values when each person is their own god and answers only to themselves as the highest authority? Do you really think a nation can long survive with 350,000,000 gods?

    3. Actually, Bob, they’re not.

      “The latest available data from the General Social Survey, a major tool for sociologists, shows that the percentage of mainline Protestants in the U.S. recently increased for the first time in nearly 30 years, from 10.2% to 10.8%, while Catholics and evangelicals showed a moderate decline. Researchers caution that subsequent data would be needed to verify a trend. Yet the graph of steady, relentless decline, stopped by a sharp recent uptick, can’t be ignored.”

      https://religionnews.com/2021/03/31/behind-gallups-portrait-of-church-decline/

      Bob, I don’t know where you get your news, but I am consistently amazed that when you assert something, it takes 25 seconds to find out that … you’re wrong. Maybe the latest Charleston Chew or whatever you’re quoting from these days isn’t out yet.

      I was in church again this weekend, Bob. I go most weekends.

      What would make me the happiest is a culture full of Christian churches that followed the now-radical teachings of Jesus Christ… as opposed to the Christian nationalist nonsense that is permeating fundamentalist churches these days. It’s a church that’s not focuses on outreach to the poor or saving souls (unless they’re not-yet-born babies, which matter a lot until birth after which no one cares about them), it’s a church that has lost hope in their eternal reward and has focused instead on political power for decades, culminating in their sellout to, of all people, Donald Trump. “Two Corinthians” indeed.

      We don’t have a Judeo-Christian culture these days and that’s the problem. We have a lot of people worshiping themselves, not caring one whit for their fellow man, going on and on about their “freedoms” and how their selfish desires matter more than society. Spend some time in the New Testament (or look at the booming Burmese churches in Indianapolis) and you will see that is NOT what the early Church as about – it’s about community and working together. You talk about that these days and you’re labelled a socialist.

      Jesus allowed himself to be crucified to pay the penalty for all our sins … beaten almost to death, nails through his hands and feet, pierced with a sword, and we go on about we can’t be bothered to wear a mask in the grocery store to protect our fellow man. It’s pitiful.

    4. For all your bloviating, Joe, you never did answer this question:

      And what will replace Judaeo-Christian values when each person is their own god and answers only to themselves as the highest authority? Do you really think a nation can long survive with 350,000,000 gods?

      And I never did hear you mention that the primary purpose of the church is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ; that whoever believes on Him will be saved and have eternal life….not by doing good works, “lest any man should boast.”

      I am offended by your constant blathering about pro-lifers not caring about babies after they are born. You are blatantly ignorant of the work down by Women’s Care Center of Indianapolis and other such charities…as opposed to the murder of God’s created souls at the hands of bloody abortionists apparently endorsed by you. (Go ahead, tell me you don’t endorse that.)

      We can agree on one of your statements: We don’t have a Judaeo-Christian culture these days and that’s the problem. We have a lot of people worshiping themselves, not caring one whit for their fellow man….

      As I was saying about each person being their own god…or were you too possessed with making your next point that you failed to see that, and understand its ramifications?

    5. Bob, I am glad you’re offended. It might mean that deep down, you know I am right. You know well my stance on life, which I’ve well established to be broader than yours. (Though, admittedly, I have lost patience with the anti vaxers.) I’m not ignorant of any charity work, I’m simply aware that it’s not nearly enough and doesn’t even come close to the solving the problem. (Seen the murder rate lately?)

      As far as what will replace Judeo-Christian values, we’ve passed the point. It’s over and has been for a few years now, this is not a Christian country.

      Christianity has ceded its moral high ground in this country, the majority of Americans don’t care one whit what a Christian leader has to say. They view them as hypocrites.

      The way to re-establish the moral high ground is not via judges and politicians passing laws, it’s via doing what Jesus called us to do on earth, which is live for eternity and help the poor, not to live solely for this world. Do that for a generation, long after the current rotten leadership is dead, and maybe you’ll have people respecting Christians again.

  3. Mayor Pete’s only experience with transportation is cutting the ribbon for a new bike trail in South Bend. Our nation is experiencing a supply chain crisis like none other. What is our Secretary of Transportation doing? He’s hiding within his paternity leave since August and the WH administration defends this lack of inaction. In times of crises, what do leaders do? They step up! So far, Mayor Pete has only stepped out. He’s way in over his head.

    1. Congrats, Chuck. You continue to remind us all why we can’t wait for boomers to no longer participate in society!

    2. Cop hate rally … wasn’t the last one of those on January 6th, back when it turned out a lot of people didn’t really support the police, since they were OK with traitors beating them up for doing their job protecting Congress from a coup attempt?

      Funny how the people talking about the rule of law actually want no such thing.

    3. @chuck take your AON talking points elsewhere.

      Your entire generation ruined the country while enjoying the fruits of your pillaging.

      My generation gets to try to clean it all up while you cry about the world going downhill (fallout from your pillaging)

  4. Pete is an abject failure and there is no amount of polishing that will otherwise improve someone unqualified and clearly ineffective in his role. He optimizes the principle for which he shares a first name.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets in {{ count_down }} days.