WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden is expected to pick his former rival Pete Buttigieg as secretary of the Transportation Department, according to three people familiar with the plans.
The decision leaves the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, poised to become the first openly gay person confirmed by the Senate to a Cabinet post. At 38, Buttigieg would also add a youthful dynamic to an incoming administration that is so far dominated in large part by leaders with decades of Washington experience.
Buttigieg, a former Navy officer, became a leading figure in national politics when he was among those who challenged Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination this year. Initially written off as the leader of a relatively small town competing against far more established figures, Buttigieg zeroed in on a message of generational change to finish the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses in a virtual tie with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
His campaign stumbled, however, in appealing to Black voters who play a critical role in Democratic politics. As the primary moved into more diverse states such as South Carolina, Buttigieg faltered and quickly withdrew from the race. His backing of Biden ushered in a remarkably swift unification of the party around its ultimate nominee.
The three people confirmed Buttigieg’s expected nomination to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to publicly preempt the president-elect’s announcement.
LGBTQ rights groups immediately spoke out in praise of Biden’s selection of Buttigieg.
“Pete’s nomination is a new milestone in a decades-long effort to ensure LGBTQ people are represented throughout our government — and its impact will reverberate well-beyond the department he will lead,” said Annise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Institute. “It distances our nation from a troubled legacy of barring out LGBTQ people from government positions and moves us closer to the President-elect’s vision of a government that reflects America.”
The South Bend chapter of Black Lives Matter, however, denounced Buttigieg’s impending nomination. The group had made their displeasure of Buttigieg known during his presidential campaign, following the 2019 South Bend shooting of a Black man by a white police officer.
“We saw Black communities have their houses torn down by his administration,” BLM’s South Bend leader Jorden Giger said in a statement, referring to Buttigieg’s effort to tear down substandard housing. “We saw the machinery of his police turned against Black people.”
It’s long been clear that Biden would find some role for Buttigieg in his administration. The two became close during the primary, chatting before debates and other campaign events.
Biden has said that Buttigieg reminds him of his late son, Beau, who was Delaware’s attorney general before dying from brain cancer at 46 in 2015.
“To me, it’s the highest compliment I can give any man or woman,” Biden said in March as Buttigieg offered his endorsement. “Like Beau, he has a backbone like a ramrod.”
Now, Buttigieg will play a central role in shaping some of Biden’s leading policy priorities.
Biden has pledged to spend billions making major infrastructure improvements and on retrofitting initiatives that can help the U.S. battle climate change. He also wants to immediately mandate mask-wearing on airplanes and public transportation systems to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Infrastructure spending can be a bipartisan issue, and President Donald Trump spent years promising to push a major bill through Congress that never materialized. Instead his administration moved to soften carbon emissions standards that Biden’s team will likely work to undo as part of the broader commitment to slowing global warming.
Despite having governed a city of barely 100,000, Buttigieg was credited with transforming traffic with his Smart Streets initiative, a three-year project to convert 8 miles (12.9 kilometers) of multilane thoroughfares into two-way routes that enhanced South Bend’s downtown. The project received awards for environmental protection.
Though on a far smaller scale than the nation’s transportation systems, the project, as well as Buttigieg’s initiative to convert the city’s sewers to a smart-flow system, demonstrates what supporters praised as Buttigieg’s next-generation infrastructure vision.
The once most frequently mentioned early pick to head the Transportation Department, President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff and ex-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, sparked strong pushback from top progressive activists. Emanuel, also a former congressman, helped oversee the Obama administration’s distribution of tens of billions of dollars in transportation spending as part of a massive stimulus bill approved following the financial crisis — but now seems unlikely to take any position in Biden’s administration.
His chances faded after progressives and civil rights leaders were very critical of Emanuel’s handling of the high-profile police shooting death of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager killed by a white officer, during his time as Chicago’s mayor.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.
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