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Rank-and-file Transportation Department employees saw their phones start blowing up the day President-elect Joe Biden announced that Pete Buttigieg was his pick to lead their agency.
One DOT staffer remembered being bombarded that December Tuesday with text messages, emails, and Facebook posts from friends who knew little about his actual job but were excited to hear that Buttigieg would be his boss.
“Hey, you might get to have lunch with him!” or “You might see him in the elevator!” those messages read, the DOT employee told Insider. They all wondered what Buttigieg would be called in his new gig: “Are you going to say ‘Mayor Pete’ or ‘Secretary Pete’?”
It’s not uncommon for political stars and former White House contenders to land in a presidential Cabinet, but they usually don’t call their new home the Transportation Department, a behemoth federal agency created during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and whose portfolio includes pipeline safety, air-traffic control, and highway maintenance.
So when they heard their new boss would be Buttigieg — a Democrat with national name recognition, a devoted social-media following, and a passion for arcane transit issues — some felt as if they’d won the secretary sweepstakes, two DOT employees told Insider.
“He’s brought a lot of high-profile attention and also clout to the role,” a second DOT staffer said. “We’re all excited at the change and like what we’ve been seeing so far.”
Buttigieg has been on the job for only a month, and his first big test will be helping the administration formulate and pass a major infrastructure package. On Thursday, he’s expected to join Biden for a meeting with House Republicans and Democrats to discuss infrastructure. He is the only Biden Democratic primary rival, aside from the Vice President Kamala Harris, to make it into the administration.
In his early weeks, though, staffers inside the department have been impressed by his willingness to learn. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, held an all-agency town hall, went on a listening tour with several branches of the department, and has been leaving voicemails to staff every Friday that serve as pep talks.
“Hope that you’re doing well, and just wanted to share a few reflections after my first full week here at USDOT,” Buttigieg said in a recent voicemail, in which he discussed his quarantine and talked about breaking down silos at the department.
The voicemails seem like “weekly notes from a very interested older brother,” one DOT employee said. “Do I need another voicemail? No. Do I like that he’s taking the time to do it? Yeah, I do.”
Do I need another voicemail? No. Do I like that he’s taking the time to do it? Yeah, I do.
His social-media team has turned previously staid agency accounts, like the Federal Railroad Administration Twitter, into meme machines. He’s talking transportation on the cable and late-night circuit, and he recently blew up Twitter after he rode a bike in Washington, DC.
In his first weeks at the department, Buttigieg has sought to elevate what has long been viewed as a backwater Cabinet agency, bringing his unique brand to a job he never expected to land but that seems to be a good match for his Midwestern wonkishness.
“This was something that was part of my style on the campaign trail, and as mayor, although it was a smaller scale then,” Buttigieg told Insider about his omnipresence on social and traditional media as a Cabinet secretary.
“There are different constraints — it’s definitely different with an agency and the basic kind of laws and rules about what you do — that we’re working through.”
He added: “But it’s very important to me that we have a very swift and innovative digital team because that is how so many people are going to relate to the department and are going to relate to the administration. It will continue to be a two-way strategy, it will continue to be a go-everywhere strategy. And transportation, in addition to being one of the most important and consequential pieces of domestic policy, in my view is also one of the most fun.”
‘He’ll meet every governor in the country’
It’s all part of Buttigieg’s quest to make transportation cool again. He’s taking on the task because infrastructure stands to be a key legacy issue for the Biden administration, as crumbling roads are in dire need of repair across the US and as the pandemic has transformed how the nation gets around.
Despite his 14-day quarantine after a member of his security detail tested positive for COVID-19 days after his swearing in, Buttigieg is off to a fast start.
Already his fan club is huge. Career employees, the White House, former DOT officials, and even some congressional Republicans have his back.
The Senate confirmed Buttigieg by a vote of 86-13 — about as bipartisan as you can get in these polarized times. DOT staffers, some of whom felt downtrodden after the Trump administration and were at first skeptical about the appointment given Buttigieg’s lack of experience with the department, said they’ve been won over as they’ve worked with him.
And even though the helm of the Transportation Department has never been seen as a serious launchpad to the presidency, DOT insiders say the post could easily prepare someone to be commander in chief. (Elizabeth Dole — whom Buttigieg phoned and spoke with after learning he would be Biden’s nominee — did run for the White House in 2000 after she led the agency, but her campaign fizzled).
“He’ll meet every governor in the country, he’ll meet so many mayors that he maybe was not acquainted with before, he’ll do some foreign travel, and he’s going to meet some foreign leaders,” former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Insider. “There’s no better preparation than that.”
LaHood said he visited all 50 states, 225 cities, and 18 countries when he led the department during the Obama administration. Buttigieg has already had calls or virtual meetings with the Canadian Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Prime Minister Robert Abela of Malta, where Buttigieg’s late father, Joseph, was born.
LaHood, a former Illinois Republican congressman who’s been in touch with his fellow Midwesterner since he got the nomination, has been impressed.
“One of the things that’s different about his nomination and his position as secretary is the fact that he ran for president and he built up so much goodwill around the country, particularly among Democrats, and the media loves him,” LaHood said. “He’s got a lot of transportation enthusiasts that really like him. … He just brings a lot of that cachet.”
Employees inside the agency told Insider that the secretary’s early enthusiasm and charm offensive feel genuine.
His predecessors in DOT’s leadership, “regardless of political stripe, have all done variations on a theme: ‘We need to look into this, we need to have a task force, let’s have a listening session,'” one of the DOT employees said. But Buttigieg and the new administration seem open to innovation on issues like electric vehicles, climate change, and economic development.
“He’s just a really nice dude,” that person added. “It’s just really charming to be in the company or an employee of somebody who’s just so good, somebody who you’d want to have as a neighbor.”
He’s just a really nice dude. … It’s just really charming to be in the company or an employee of somebody who’s just so good, somebody who you’d want to have as a neighbor.
Buttigieg is no doubt in for some fights on Capitol Hill as he defends Biden’s infrastructure and climate policies.
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas peppered Buttigieg during his confirmation hearing with questions about Biden’s move to cancel the Keystone Pipeline, a contentious decision that Biden’s critics argue will lead to the loss of union jobs.
Cruz, himself an unsuccessful White House candidate, said at the January hearing that he feared a cascade of regulatory moves from the Biden administration that would result in lost jobs.
“What do you say to those workers whose jobs have just been eliminated by presidential edict?” he asked Buttigieg.
Buttigieg replied: “We are very eager to see those workers continue to be employed in good-paying union jobs, even if they might be different ones.”
From Team Pete to Team DOT
Echoes of Buttigieg’s presidential campaign are apparent during his early days in the Cabinet.
A handful of campaign staffers have jumped over to the agency. The list includes Nick Hornedo, his former social-media writer and director who now helms the department’s new social strategy. Buttigieg’s former national press secretary, Chris Meagher, just moved to the White House on Wednesday to serve as deputy press secretary, a position that opened up after T.J. Ducklo resigned following threatening comments he’d made to a reporter. In his brief stint at Transportation, Meagher landed his boss a breakneck pace of nontraditional media appearances for a secretary, including with The Points Guy and a rare booking on “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” Buttigieg also held an off-the-record session with reporters in February. Later this month, he’s set to deliver a virtual keynote at the tastemaking media and music festival South by Southwest.
The Biden administration is pleased with Buttigieg’s high-profile turn in the role.
“President Biden and the White House asked Secretary Buttigieg to play a leading role in developing the president’s recovery agenda and building public support for the Rescue Plan,” a White House official said, “and the secretary’s done an admirable job in that work and in communicating it to the American people.”
A former Biden campaign aide added that Buttigieg’s long leash for his cable-TV hits shows he has the administration’s confidence.
“These appearances reflect a high level of trust,” the former campaign official said. “He has a rare capability to advocate and deliver strong messages with both heart and precision. At the same time, his integrity and competence are unmissable, which is even more important.”
The former official added: “Also, as a former mayor and youngest member of the cabinet, he’s representing constituencies who often feel like they don’t have a voice. And especially during a period of historic crisis, all of those qualities are extremely valuable.”
Buttigieg has shown an ability to learn hard lessons from his presidential campaign too.
On the trail during his 317-day bid, Buttigieg consistently came under fire for a series of missteps on matters of race: his dismissal of South Bend’s first Black police chief in his first term as mayor; the police shooting of a Black citizen; a campaign contractor using stock photos of a Kenyan woman to illustrate his Douglass Plan for Black America; and his use of the term “Heartland” in a tweet. MSNBC’s Joy Reid later called that tweet a racial “dog whistle” in an interview before the Iowa caucuses last year, causing Buttigieg to flinch.
It was notable, then, when Reid landed Buttigieg’s first official sit-down interview after his swearing-in earlier this month on the anniversary of Rosa Parks’ birthday. It was also notable when one of Buttigieg’s first calls after being sworn in was with National Urban League President Marc Morial, who, in the summer of 2019, was grilling Buttigieg at the group’s conference in Indianapolis over his record on race as mayor. The two talked about the importance of getting an infrastructure package through Congress. Morial took it as an encouraging sign.
“What I noticed from him is a willingness to ask and to listen, a willingness to learn and understand, and he’s a man of superior intellect and he’s not closed-minded,” Morial told Insider. “And I think it meant a lot to me that he called me early, and that we can establish this working relationship around a range of issues in the department.”
One of Buttigieg’s other meetings was with the African American Mayors Association, in which he spent more than an hour listening to infrastructure concerns from their cities.
It’s possible that the people coming around on Buttigieg are doing so as a matter of self-interest: Buttigieg is now in a position of national power, with his hands on the purse strings of roughly $87 billion.
Buttigieg is also a “bipartisan person,” LaHood said. He referred to the support Buttigieg had on the campaign trail from Republicans and Democrats alike, and to the bipartisan support for his Senate confirmation. “There are lots of Republicans that are going to embrace the Biden agenda and support it and his leadership.”
‘Will you hold for the president-elect?’
Driving along a Michigan highway one day late last year, somewhere between his South Bend home and his Northern Michigan lake house, Buttigieg fielded a call.
“It was the classic, ‘Will you hold for the president-elect?'” Buttigieg told Insider. Biden asked Buttigieg to be his Transportation secretary. (Buttigieg took the call safely on a hands-free device, a spokesman said.)
Buttigieg — an Episcopalian who attended a Roman Catholic college-prep school in South Bend — often makes big career decisions through the Ignatian process of discernment, a spiritual way of examining how your inner talents match up with external opportunities. This one didn’t require such soul searching, he said. Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, moved to DC early this year and leased an apartment with their rescue dogs, Buddy and Truman, not long before selling their 1905 neoclassical home along the St. Joseph River.
Axios reported that Buttigieg wanted to be the US ambassador to the United Nations, but Biden passed him over for that slot. Still, Biden’s Transportation chief is poised to be at the center of negotiations over a massive infrastructure push, which is sure to give Buttigieg even more exposure and could allow him to claim a major domestic policy win.
In an interview during the final days of his quarantine last month, Buttigieg sidestepped a question about speculation that he was more interested in administration jobs such as US ambassador to the United Nations or even China.
Ever bookish, Buttigieg has also been pondering the example of Robert Moses, the mid-20th-century builder chronicled by the author Robert Caro. Moses’ highway designs frequently led to the decline of Black neighborhoods because they intentionally included bridges too low for buses to pass through, which only served to block poorer Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers from accessing beaches and other public spaces.
Buttigieg has already met with labor unions, transportation industry groups, and CEOs such as General Motors’ Mary Barra, Southwest Airlines’ Gary Kelly, and Airlines for America’s Nick Calio, among other leaders and constituency groups. Also receiving call time: heads of the Black, Hispanic, and Asian congressional caucuses on the Hill and state and local leaders.
“He brings unique characteristics to that job as a person who I think is going to be an effective public advocate for infrastructure,” Morial said, “and then the political skills to put the pieces together, to work with the privates, to work with the private sector, work with local electeds, work with the White House, work with racial-justice advocates across the board, with respect to how you do these projects and how you do these initiatives.”
Speculation about Buttigieg’s presidential prospects won’t go away. The White House chief of staff Ron Klain — a fellow Hoosier — retweeted, and then quickly deleted, the opinion columnist Jennifer Rubin’s calling for a Harris-Buttigieg ticket in 2028. “That one I don’t know anything about,” Buttigieg said.
If Buttigieg does decide to run for the White House again, at least some DOT staffers would welcome the attention on their work.
“It would be great, because somebody as president can bring even greater attention to America’s transportation needs,” the first DOT staffer said. For now, he added, everyone is focused on “the mission at hand, which is trying to get a big bill passed through Congress, give states the resources they need to get things done, and really just make things better. And that seems to be his focus right now.”
Buttigieg is looking for ways to put his own stamp on his new department. In addition to domestic travel, which he hopes to resume once the pandemic subsides, Buttigieg is eyeing more international travel too.
“That’s obviously the most natural thing in the world for the secretary of Transportation, to be on the move a lot.
That’s obviously the most natural thing in the world for the secretary of Transportation, to be on the move a lot.
And so what I’m hoping to do domestically is a healthy mix of areas with a lot of people and a lot of resources and a lot of attention,” Buttigieg said.
“Internationally, the balance will be between areas where I think we have a lot to learn, areas where we should be kind of seeing what best in class is, and if it isn’t us, figuring out why, and then bringing that home,” he added.
Buttigieg is in demand. Just after his confirmation, he got an invite to a White House meeting in February to talk infrastructure, though he participated virtually because he was quarantining. Thursday’s return to the spotlight comes as Biden is calling for a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that’s expected to be the administration’s next big legislative push.
That’s a positive sign for those who want to see boatloads of federal cash spent on repairing roads and expanding broadband access. It also bodes well for Buttigieg.
“To think that one of the first meetings in the first 30 days was about transportation and infrastructure with Congress,” LaHood said, referring to the gathering in early February. “That’s just a very good signal. It really is.”
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