Buttigieg’s star rises as Biden’s $1 trillion agenda turns toward him

Buttigieg’s star rises as Biden’s $1 trillion agenda turns toward him

Washington — Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary who holds the threads for much of President Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure package, has been sticking to reporters about its impact — the promise of more electric cars, intercity train tracks, and bigger airports — on a specific question. came.

How will he begin to build racial equality in infrastructure?

The 39-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana and the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate has made his argument that highway design can reflect racism, noting that at least $1 billion in the bill would help reconnect segregated cities and neighborhoods. Or divided by road projects.

“I am still amazed that some people were surprised when I pointed out the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a black and white neighborhood … that clearly reflects racism,” he said.


Racial equality is an issue where Democrats’ priorities are aligned with Buttigieg’s future. One of his biggest flaws as a White House candidate was his inability to win over black voters. The way he navigates this trend into the mid-term of 2022 will likely shape the fortunes of Biden’s and the Democratic Party’s agenda, if not his own prospects.

Republicans, seeking to exploit the issue, attacked Buttigieg’s words.

“I heard some things, some strange things from the Secretary of Transportation trying to make this about social issues,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said. “For me, the road is the road.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz wrote in a sarcastic tweet: “Roads are racist. We should get rid of the roads.”

But Buttigieg did not engage and was on his way to his next stop, the Scotland Climate Summit. There he gave nearly a dozen interviews in which he promoted provisions of the Biden Act that would build a network of electric car charging stations. He also engaged with young climate activists and took pictures with former President Barack Obama.


Regarding road racism, he simply said, “I don’t know who it pains me to admit that harm has been done and to suggest that something be done to fix it.”

His department later announced that it would award additional discretionary assistance to help up to 20 American communities remove portions of highways, redesign rural major streets and repurpose former railroad tracks. That could help places from Syracuse, New York, where many residents support a plan to demolish parts and build a walkable network, to racially divided areas of New Orleans and St. Paul, Minnesota.

As Biden prepares to sign the infrastructure bill Monday, all eyes are on the man still known as “Mayor Pete,” a newcomer whose promise of “generational change” and his sobering realization of pothole repair has propelled him to the top of the world. Early Democratic primary contests during the 2020 campaign.


Quickly endorsing Biden after dropping the race, Buttigieg is now one of Washington’s most powerful brokers, handling the largest infusion of cash into the transportation sector since the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.

Armed with so much money and so much show in how it is spent, Buttigieg is poised to be the most influential transportation secretary ever,” said Jeff Davis, Senior Fellow at the Ino Center for Transportation. The ministry was established in 1967.

In all, about $120 billion of the $550 billion in new transportation spending on the bill will come in the form of competitive grants that give Buttigieg discretion in how the money is used.

A separate social spending bill is pending in the House that would pump billions of additional dollars into the Transportation Department, which already expects to increase its annual budget by more than 50% to $140 billion.


“It’s a lot of money,” says Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois and Obama-era Secretary of Transportation, who in turn presided over the release of $48 billion in transportation money in the 2009 Recovery Act. Since then, Lahoud said, major federal investment in transportation has remained stagnant, driving up demand for road, bridge, and Amtrak projects that can be launched quickly.

It’s both a blessing and a challenge for Buttigieg, who revealed in August that he is going to be a father with husband Chasten. He took several weeks of paternity leave to care for the twins, returning in October as Republicans criticized him for leaving office. Recently, he was spending time observing his infant son, who had been ill for three weeks and hospitalized with a respiratory illness, while working to address national supply chain issues.


He said last month, “When someone welcomes a new baby into their family, and they go on vacation to take care of that baby, it’s not vacation, it’s work. I won’t apologize.”

Starting this week, Buttigieg will join other cabinet members to roll out the plan across the country.

“Look, a lot of this is selling itself because communities have never needed to be persuaded that their bridge needs repair or that their airport needs to be upgraded or that their ports need investment,” Buttigieg said. They were trying to get Washington to catch up.

Anthony Fox, who served as Obama’s Secretary of Transportation from 2013 to 2017, said the big challenge will be the massive operational detail in the department, where Buttigieg is backed by veteran hands. Many programs are new, and require clear guidelines to states and localities about what they are eligible for and how the money is awarded. “They will be running multiple plans with very high dollar numbers, which creates pressure on the administrative staff,” Fox said.


And on Friday, Biden said he would appoint someone outside the administration to oversee the disbursement of funds.

Once several programs are in place, after six to nine months, Fox said, “it happens when the magic happens in what is being funded and what may not cut the mustard.” High-volume road projects that could accelerate through spring 2023 with top prizes for multibillion-dollar bridges, intercity rail and the New York Gateway Tunnel.

As mayor, Buttigieg has been responsive to calls to fix roads and potholes. He enjoyed talking about the latest sanitation systems. Now this message will be patriotic with much greater stakes.

“The currency of politics is exposure, and he’s got a lot of exposure,” said Larry Grisalano, who was Buttigieg’s advertising consultant.

At the White House, staff warmly refer to him as “Million Secretary Pete,” and he has compared Biden Buttigieg to his late son Beau. The White House celebrated Chastain’s birthday with cake. “You’re the best, man,” Biden said after Buttigieg spoke at the White House over the summer.


However, in a city full of ambition, Buttigieg’s potential to move far on the national stage could make him a target.

As Biden’s top lieutenant on the bill, Buttigieg’s former press secretary, Nina Smith, said that Buttigieg has the opportunity to lead an effort to “eliminate past injustices.” .

“This is an additional responsibility that I think he is fully aware of and is playing a central role in the work,” said Smith, who is a Democratic political adviser.


Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.

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