WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday confirmed Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, to be transportation secretary, putting in place the official who will help oversee President Joe Biden’s overhaul of the nation’s infrastructure.
By a vote of 86-13, the Senate made Buttigieg, 39, the nation’s first openly gay Cabinet secretary to be confirmed by the upper chamber and Biden’s youngest Cabinet member.
His confirmation underscored the support that Buttigieg had received from lawmakers in both parties as he described plans for an infrastructure overhaul that aligned with Biden’s goals on climate change, racial justice, job creation and economic recovery.
Buttigieg now faces a challenge. He will take over an agency that employs 55,000 people and controls around $87 billion in transportation funding at a time when the country’s modes of public transportation are reeling from the pandemic. As Biden’s senior official on transportation, he will most likely play a key role in shepherding any attempt the administration makes to get its $2 trillion infrastructure plan through Congress.
At his confirmation hearing last month, Buttigieg said there was a “generational opportunity” to transform infrastructure. He also pledged to work with the nation’s state, local and tribal leaders, and said he would try to mitigate the effect that transportation policies had historically had on poor and minority communities.
“I believe good transportation policy can play no less a role than making possible the American dream,” he said. “But I also recognize that at their worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities in transportation can reinforce racial and economic inequality.”
While shying from specific proposals before being confirmed, Buttigieg said he would work to ensure that Biden’s executive order requiring masks on certain modes of interstate travel would be enforced.
Buttigieg also told lawmakers that he would reexamine the Federal Aviation Administration’s measures that govern aviation safety after the fatal crashes of Boeing 737 MAX airplanes. He also pledged to work toward Biden’s goal of installing 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the country, as part of a strategy to increase the use of electric vehicles and stem the advance of climate change.
Buttigieg’s confirmation was described by a number of human rights groups as a symbolic moment for the LGBTQ community.
“This confirmation breaks through a barrier that has existed for too long; where LGBTQ identity served as an impediment to nomination or confirmation at the highest level of government,” Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a group dedicated to advancing the interests of the LGBTQ community, said in a statement. “Let this important moment for our movement serve as a reminder to every LGBTQ young person: You too can serve your country in any capacity you earn the qualifications to hold.”
Although Buttigieg received a warm reception on Capitol Hill and among transportation experts, criticism has followed him into office, particularly on race. During his presidential run, Buttigieg was denounced for his firing of a Black police chief early in his tenure as mayor and his inability to diversify South Bend’s overwhelmingly white police force.
Critics have also pointed to Buttigieg’s relatively thin record on transportation overhaul, disparities in South Bend’s distribution of contracting dollars to minority- and female-owned businesses and the limited number of minority appointments that Buttigieg made to his top political staff in South Bend.
At his hearing, he entered into politically fraught territory by not immediately ruling out an increase in the nation’s gas tax to refill the dwindling pot of money for highway improvements, saying that “all options need to be on the table.” After the hearing, a spokesman said Buttigieg opposed increasing the tax.
To help Buttigieg, Biden has nominated Polly Trottenberg, who oversaw New York City’s Transportation Department for seven years, as his deputy. The administration has also appointed 40 senior officials to the department, including to critical posts overseeing airways, highways and railroads.
During Buttigieg’s time as mayor, his signature transportation achievement was a $25 million project, called Smart Streets, that converted South Bend’s one-way roads into two-way streets with bike lanes and sidewalks to encourage foot traffic and downtown commercial activity.
Now, transportation experts say, the test will be to see how Buttigieg enacts his promises to make the department more climate friendly and racially just with his limited authority over how money can be spent.
“Compared to Congress, the power of USDOT to directly allocate transportation resources is small,” said Ben Fried, a spokesman for TransitCenter, a foundation that supports a nationwide transit overhaul. “But in the hands of the right team, Pete Buttigieg’s department can still exert immense influence on the transportation landscape.”
Buttigieg will also bring a following to the position of transportation secretary that is unusual for a normally low-profile Cabinet post.
In the days surrounding his confirmation hearing, Buttigieg went on television shows including ABC’s “The View” and NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” where he spoke about how the Transportation Department could play a crucial role in advancing Biden’s climate change strategy.
Several political experts said a stint as transportation secretary could bolster a future presidential run by Buttigieg since it gives him an opportunity to try for achievements that resonate with Democrats attracted to his brand.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” said Eitan D. Hersh, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University. “Between the profile he raised for himself in the primary and this new role in the administration, it gives him a profile he can use to launch an electoral bid across the country.”