PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden will nominate former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg to be Transportation secretary, according to three people familiar with the decision.
Buttigieg’s ascension to the top spot at DOT marks the culmination of a meteoric rise in politics over the last two years from the mayor of South Bend, Ind., to the first openly gay Cabinet secretary, if he is confirmed.
But Buttigieg’s landing spot comes as a surprise given his thin transportation policy resume.
Buttigieg, 38, wanted to serve as the ambassador to the United Nations, a position that went to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and he was also considered for Commerce secretary. But Buttigieg has a limited political future in his home state of Indiana, and Buttigieg supporters were hopeful Biden would give the mayor a high-profile spot to gain more experience and bolster his big political ambitions.
If confirmed, Buttigieg will head to Washington to take responsibility for nearly 55,000 employees, an $87 billion budget and more than a dozen administrations, overseeing the nation’s airspace, highway system, pipeline safety and much more.
Reuters first reported the news that the Biden team plans to nominate Buttigieg. Biden’s transition officially announced the selection later Tuesday evening.
But in March, when Buttigieg suspended his campaign to endorse Biden for the presidency, Biden compared the former mayor to his son, Beau, saying it’s “the highest compliment I can give any man or woman.”
“And, like Beau, he has a backbone like a ramrod,” Biden said. “I promise you, over your lifetime, you’re going to end up seeing a hell of a lot more of Pete than you are of me.”
As South Bend mayor, Buttigieg was chief executive of a city with a population of just over 100,000, with a relatively small transportation footprint. South Bend Transpo, the local transit agency, has a fleet of 60 buses and has seen sinking ridership in the last few years. There’s an international airport near South Bend, but it’s run by the county.
His transportation expertise pales in comparison to other candidates passed over for the job, like David Kim, John Porcari or Sarah Feinberg, all of whom have years of transportation experience both at DOT and elsewhere, and are also savvy Beltway operators.
But that lack of experience did not stop Buttigieg from making grand plans on the campaign trail in 2020. He was one of the first presidential primary candidates to put out an infrastructure plan, a detailed proposal which touted a vehicle miles traveled fee and road safety — subjects usually reserved for policy wonks.
Buttigieg rose from the mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana to a top-tier presidential contender, eventually winning the Iowa caucuses and finishing in second in the New Hampshire primary. His presidential bid flamed out after the first four early states, largely because he failed to make any inroads with voters of color, a critical constituency in the Democratic primary.Just before news broke that Buttigieg will be Biden’s choice for the role, Black activists warned against his selection, saying he and other longtime Biden allies rumored for the spot have a poor record of working with communities of color.
Two Black community leaders from South Bend — Council member Henry Davis Jr. and local Black Lives Matter leader Jorden Giger — both of whom have criticized Buttigieg’s record throughout his presidential primary campaign, mobilized again this week in response to reports that he was under consideration.
“He did a really bad job for this community and my district in particular,” Davis Jr. said. “Bus lines have been shut down and cut off in one of the poorest census tracts in this country.”
“He has no history of working with Black owned businesses,” added Giger. “Hurting Black communities is not worth the price of doing a political favor for Pete Buttigieg because he endorsed [Biden’s] campaign in the primary.”
Buttigieg dropped out just before Super Tuesday and quickly endorsed Biden, before becoming a top surrogate for the campaign. Buttigieg also helped Kamala Harris prepare for her vice presidential debate, playing the role of Mike Pence in mock debates. After Harris, he would become the second former presidential candidate to join the Cabinet.
And Buttigieg’s aggressive media strategy and political clout could serve the Biden administration well in pushing infrastructure legislation, which is expected to be an early priority next year.
Former DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, said Buttigieg “would make a fantastic DOT Secretary. As a former mayor, he will understand what mayors and governors need to rebuild our country and get the economy moving again.”
The job could also aid the former mayor’s political ambitions, despite its relatively low profile compared to other Cabinet spots.
(Politico: Alice Ollstein and Kathryn A. Wolfe contributed to this report)