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.
Buttigieg first had his eye on the job of the man who is now his boss, Biden.
Now the man known during his campaign as “Mayor Pete” — he was the mayor of South Bend, Indiana — 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 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.
In an interview, Buttigieg said he believes that bipartisan consensus is attainable.
“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.”
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 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.
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.