Former South Bend Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was a few weeks into his job as transportation secretary, buried in meetings and preparing for the launch of President Joe Biden’s $2.3 trillion public works plan, when evening arrived along with a time to try something new in Washington.
Instead of climbing into the back seat of a black SUV like most Cabinet secretaries, he headed to a bike-share rack. Helmet on, and with a couple of Secret Service agents flanking him, he pedaled the mile-long trip to his home in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.
It wasn’t a one-time stunt. On Thursday, Buttigieg arrived at the White House for a Cabinet meeting on his two-wheeler. And that wasn’t his only “regular guy” moment. Dog park devotees in the District of Columbia have also seen him there, chatting up anyone from children to members of Congress such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Buttigieg first had his eye on the job of the man who is now his boss, Biden. Buttigieg’s presidential campaign was surprisingly successful — he essentially tied for first with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucuses and finished a close second to him in the New Hampshire primary — and he made a strong impression as someone who represented the future of the Democratic Party.
Now the man known during his campaign as “Mayor Pete” faces the first test of that potential in his first job in Washington: leading a Cabinet department with a $75 billion annual budget and a mandate to help spur an infrastructure program that Biden has likened to the building of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
He will have to navigate the complicated politics of both an entrenched bureaucracy at the Transportation Department and the fraught politics of a bitterly divided Washington.
He may have found a way by just riding a bike, which has gained fans from even skeptics in Congress.
“You’ve got to keep your head up,” Buttigieg told The Associated Press, explaining the path and potential dangers posed from unaccustomed drivers, but he said it can be a much quicker journey from point A to B.
Biden on Thursday tasked Buttigieg and four other Cabinet members — the “Jobs Cabinet” — with selling the administration’s infrastructure and climate plan, a flood of money for roads, bridges, airports, broadband communications, water systems and electric cars.
But the plan has already hit a wall with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who objects to the corporate tax increases Biden says will pay for the plan and pledges to oppose it “every step of the way.” On the other side, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says the package should be significantly larger.
Daunting as it may seem, the challenge of helping build consensus fits the ambition of the man who had the audacity to run for president from the perch of being mayor of a midsize city in Indiana. When Biden selected the smooth-talking Naval reserve veteran for the transportation post, he praised him as offering “a new voice with new ideas determined to move past old politics.”
In an interview, Buttigieg said he believes that bipartisan consensus is attainable.
Joining Buttigieg in selling the plan are Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
“I’ve had enough conversations, especially the one-on-one conversations away from the cameras with members from both sides of the aisle, to know there really is a sincere interest in getting this done,” Buttigieg told the AP. “Now politics can get in the way of that of course. But I think unlike a lot of other issues where there is just deep passionately felt profound disagreement about what to do, here there’s a really healthy overlap in terms of our ideas about what has to happen, even if there is a lot of difference on how to get there.”
Translation? Republicans like smooth roads and fast internet for their constituents, too. But so far, there is no indication Republicans share his position.
The proposal offers big stakes for Buttigieg at the department, where he pledges to promote public transit and other green alternatives to gas-guzzling cars and apply an “equity lens” to infrastructure projects.
“Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately divided by highway projects or left isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transportation resources,” Buttigieg tweeted in December. Under Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, he said, “we will make righting these wrongs an imperative.”
Just two months into the job, Buttigieg has met with two dozen House members and 13 senators and in recent days has upped that pace, talking to lawmakers from both parties every day.
Republicans describe the former McKinsey consultant as likable and open-minded, even if they wonder at times about his actual level of sway on legislation.
Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on a key panel overseeing highways, said he’s talked with Buttigieg twice, once at a meeting with Biden and a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House. He called the conversations “really good.”
“I’m very excited to be able to work with him,” said Davis, a cyclist back home in his rural district, who thinks the former mayor can bring a valuable street-level perspective to filling potholes and easing congested streets.
“If he wants to go for a ride to discuss bike lanes and public transit, I’d welcome that,” he said.
Though the youngest Cabinet member at age 39, Buttigieg possesses a star power matched by few others in the group. He’s displayed an ability to command media attention and use those moments — including during a series of memorable Fox News hits around the election — to sway the public, including those not always apt to vote Democratic.
He’s spoken at the popular SXSW conference in Texas, joined Gov. Ralph Northam, D-Va., to promote expanded passenger rail, and tweets at a frequency to a wider public that comes close to rivaling Donald Trump when he was president. Buttigieg promotes transit policy both on his official and personal account, where he also expresses devotion to his husband, Chasten.
Buttigieg, who owns two dogs, has even been seen at a neighborhood park with Ocasio-Cortez. A chance meeting, he said.
The new transportation secretary had one recent stumble: He had to quickly walk back a plan to charge drivers per mile they drove. It’s a proposal that has some support among Republicans but could violate Biden’s campaign pledge not to raise taxes on people earning less than $400,000.
Buttigieg has impressed West Wing aides with his work ethic and willingness to learn, and he was quickly granted approval to pursue a robust engagement with the media.
The president’s advisers also hold warm feelings toward the former mayor for his decision last spring to quickly endorse Biden after abandoning his own campaign, helping accelerate the end of the Democratic primary contest. And Biden has compared Buttigieg to his late son Beau, a powerful evocation that helped cement his importance to the president.
Now bound to Biden’s agenda and performance, Buttigieg begins a phase likely to enhance his public service portfolio — and life experience.
This phase accomplishes what some allies have said Buttigieg needed, a next chapter, beyond the underdog story of the boy wonder from the small Midwestern city. Friends and advisers had long suggested that he get out of South Bend and see more of the world than his seven-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 allowed.
Buttigieg was also busy taking steps toward running for president when he got married in June 2018 and when his father died six months later. During the campaign, he said he and Chasten had hopes of becoming parents.
Asked about his desire to be a father, Buttigieg told the AP “we’re still working at that,” before adding with a smile, “Stay tuned.”
As quickly as he rose, Buttigieg swiftly suspended his campaign in March 2020, before Biden’s ascension in the primary was clear. He knew when to get out. He’ll probably know when to get back in, too, if he does.
“He has incredible political talent and skill,” said Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, a longtime friend and 2020 campaign supporter. “But part of that talent and skill is having really great political timing.”
On that front, she sees his work on infrastructure not as “part of this grand plan on his next move,” but rather as a demonstration of his ability to focus on the task at hand.
Buttigieg and his husband have been spotted walking around their new neighborhood, Capitol Hill, where they live in a one-bedroom apartment, meandering the artisanal stalls at Eastern Market to smiles from residents. Last weekend, they wandered along the brick row houses and blooming magnolia cherry blossom trees, greeting neighbors with waves and allowing young children to pet their dogs. Their one-eyed puggle named “Buddy,” adopted in late 2018, has become something of an Instagram star.
Buddy lingered as a blond-haired little girl ran up and sat to snuggle him while the other lab mix, Truman, stood nearby.
“He loves the attention,” Chasten Buttigieg explained to the girl, a trait Buddy picked up during the campaign.
Pete Buttigieg smiled as the girl gave the dog a goodbye scratch on the head, and the couple slowly made the way back on a path toward the Capitol.