Biden Taps Pete Buttigieg for Transportation Secretary
WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. will nominate Pete Buttigieg to be secretary of transportation, Mr. Biden’s transition team announced Tuesday, selecting a former mayor of South Bend, Ind., and former opponent who would bring a younger voice to the cabinet and add to its diversity as its first openly gay member.
Mr. Buttigieg, 38, a Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan veteran, emerged during the Democratic primaries to wage a fierce battle for the party’s presidential nomination before bowing out and endorsing Mr. Biden. The two men bonded during the general election campaign, and the president-elect made it clear that he wanted to find a place for Mr. Buttigieg in his administration.
During the campaign, the former mayor proved himself to be among the Democratic Party’s most skilled communicators. Mr. Buttigieg as transportation secretary would be a key player in advancing Mr. Biden’s ambitious agenda on both rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and on climate change, one of the most important priorities for the new administration.
The Transportation Department under Mr. Biden is expected to play a newly climate-centric role, particularly because of the agency’s authority to regulate vehicle emissions, the leading source of climate-warming pollution in the United States, to encourage electric vehicles and to provide funding for mass transit.
“Transportation should really be considered as a green agency,” said Carol Browner, who served as President Barack Obama’s senior climate change adviser.
Climate change is also expected to play a newly critical role in planning infrastructure like roads, bridges, dams and levies, as the agency takes into account new climate science showing how heat and flooding could damage such structures — and building and planning accordingly.
Mr. Buttigieg frequently traced his awareness of the climate emergency to his experience managing two supposedly 500-year floods of the St. Joseph River when he served as mayor of South Bend.
John D. Podesta, the founder of the Center for American Progress, who was an adviser to Mr. Obama on climate change, said that while Mr. Buttigieg may not have a deep background in climate issues, “the guy can drill down on almost anything.”
“He will, I think, grasp the challenge of moving the transportation sector toward a net-zero emissions profile by 2050,” Mr. Podesta added.
Mr. Buttigieg now stands as the first major member of Mr. Biden’s domestic climate change team, which the president-elect had hoped to roll out in its entirety this week.
Several sources close to the presidential transition said Mr. Biden had selected Gina McCarthy, who led the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration, to lead the White House office of climate policy, and Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, as the energy secretary.
But the nomination of an E.P.A. administrator has been held up with concerns over racial equity.
Mr. Biden’s first choice to head the agency was Mary D. Nichols, California’s top climate change regulator. But she came under fire from liberal activists who contended that Ms. Nichols did not do enough in her state to address racial disparities in environmental policy.
That has set off a scramble to find a candidate of color to lead the agency: last-minute possibilities include Richard L. Revesz, an Argentina-born law professor and former dean of N.Y.U. School of Law; Michael S. Regan, who currently serves as head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality and is Black; and Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, who is of Mexican descent.
If confirmed, Mr. Buttigieg would be not only the first openly L.G.B.T.Q. person to hold a cabinet-level position in the Biden administration, but the first in any cabinet, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group that last month pressed Mr. Biden to appoint L.G.B.T.Q. people to his cabinet.
“His voice as a champion for the L.G.B.T.Q. community in the cabinet room will help President-elect Biden build back our nation better, stronger and more equal than before,” said Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign.
But while he was a barrier-breaking presidential candidate, Mr. Buttigieg never built an appeal to Black voters, a core Democratic Party constituency. And with civil rights groups pressing Mr. Biden to appoint more people of color to high-level positions, that could create more problems as he tries to appeal to all of his party’s constituencies.
In June 2019, Mr. Buttigieg was forced to leave the campaign trail and return to South Bend when a police officer fatally shot a Black man, leaving Mr. Buttigieg to face an ugly confrontation with his constituents. He had minimal support from Black and Hispanic elected officials and had little appeal to Black voters in South Carolina after focusing his campaign on first-in-the-nation Iowa.
Mr. Buttigieg began the presidential campaign as a political unknown, the mayor of a postindustrial city and college town of about 100,000 people who combined his skill communicating on television and populist liberal ideas like eliminating the Electoral College and expanding the Supreme Court to build the largest big-donor fund-raising apparatus in the field.
But as his political standing rose, Mr. Buttigieg adapted from a position on the political left to become a moderate in the Biden mold. He focused less on court expansion and campaigned against the single-payer health care plan put forward by Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the most liberal of the Democratic presidential candidates.
Like many others in the 2020 Democratic field, Mr. Biden was at first annoyed by Mr. Buttigieg’s presidential ambitions — and before the New Hampshire primary, his campaign belittled Mr. Buttigieg’s lack of experience — though the two grew closer in their shared effort to hold back the party’s more liberal contenders.
Mr. Buttigieg’s fiercest primary scraps were with Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. The two battled during a Las Vegas debate in February, with Ms. Klobuchar snapping, “I wish everyone was as perfect as you, Pete.”
On Tuesday, Ms. Klobuchar praised his appointment.
“We were friends throughout and have talked many times since the primary, and I am really happy for him,” she said in an interview. “I think his experience in local government will be really helpful for this position.”
When Mr. Buttigieg ended his campaign and endorsed Mr. Biden, the former vice president gave him his own event in Dallas — a favor not afforded to fellow rivals like Ms. Klobuchar and former Representative Beto O’Rourke, who threw their support to Mr. Biden at a campaign rally hours later. Mr. Biden said at the time that Mr. Buttigieg, who was first elected mayor at age 29, reminded him of his son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015.
A Navy veteran, Mr. Buttigieg could have led the Department of Veterans Affairs. But Mr. Biden decided instead to put him in charge of transportation, a choice earlier reported by Reuters.
Mr. Buttigieg, whose calling card as a presidential candidate was a claim to have revived his dying hometown, South Bend, made infrastructure — and in particular, the city’s transportation corridors — an early focus of his tenure.
Soon after taking office in 2012, he set about transforming the downtown, the key to which was an initiative he called “Smart Streets.” The existing traffic pattern of multilane, one-way streets whooshed drivers through the city’s retail and office canyons to suburban homes and shopping.
Mr. Buttigieg restored two-way traffic and added bike lanes, trees and on-street parking, all intended to slow traffic and lure pedestrians.
Controversial at first, the $25 million project required dozens of public meetings over two years before residents and the South Bend City Council got on board.
Once completed, the investment ignited a revival of the downtown. New hotels, retail and residential conversions of lofts followed. About 1,000 people had taken up residence in downtown South Bend by the time Mr. Buttigieg left office in January this year, compared with virtually zero when he began.
Mr. Buttigieg would be one of the youngest cabinet members in history. Julián Castro was 39 when Mr. Obama appointed him housing secretary in 2014. Alexander Hamilton was in his mid-30s when he became the nation’s first Treasury secretary.
Trip Gabriel and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story