Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary who holds the purse strings of much of President Joe Biden’s $ 1,000 billion infrastructure package, spoke to reporters about its impact – the promise of more electric cars , intercity train lines, larger airports – when a sharp question came up.
How would he go about integrating racial equity into the infrastructure?
Former South Bend, Indiana mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate made his argument that freeway design may reflect racism, noting that at least $ 1 billion in the bill will help reconnect towns and neighborhoods that had been separated or divided by road projects. .
“I’m always surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed out that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white neighborhood and a black neighborhood … it obviously reflects racism,” he said. .
Racial equity is an issue where Democratic priorities and Mr. Buttigieg’s future align. One of his biggest flaws as a White House candidate was his inability to convince black voters. How he navigates as he nears the mid-terms of 2022 will likely shape the fortunes of Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party’s platform, if not his own outlook.
Republicans seeking to exploit the issue rushed at Mr Buttigieg’s comments.
âI heard stuff, weird stuff from the transportation secretary trying to talk about social issues,â Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said. “To me, a road is a road.”
Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted sarcastically, âThe roads are racist. We have to get rid of the roads.
But Mr Buttigieg did not commit and went to his next stop, the climate summit in Scotland. There, he spent nearly a dozen interviews as he promoted the provisions of Mr. Biden’s bill that would build a network of electric vehicle charging stations. He also engaged with young climate activists and took photos with former President Barack Obama.
On the racism on the roads, he said simply, âI don’t know who it hurts to admit that something bad has been done and to offer to do something about it.
His department later announced it would provide additional discretionary aid to help up to 20 U.S. communities remove portions of highways, redesign rural main streets and reuse old rail lines. It could help places ranging from Syracuse, New York, where many residents support a plan to cut down portions and build a pedestrian gate, to the racially divided areas of New Orleans and St. Paul, Minnesota.
As Mr Biden prepares to sign the infrastructure bill on Monday, all eyes turn to the man even better known as “Mayor Pete”, a newcomer whose promise of “generational change” and real-world sensitivity to pothole repair propelled him to the top of the first Democratic primary contests in the 2020 campaign.
Quickly endorsing Mr Biden after dropping out of the race, Mr Buttigieg is now on his way to becoming one of Washington’s most powerful brokers, handling the largest injection of money into the transportation industry since inception in years. 1950 interstate highway system.
âArmed with so much money and great latitude in how to spend it, Buttigieg is on his way to becoming the most influential transportation secretary of all time,â said Jeff Davis, senior researcher at the Eno Center for Transportation. The department was founded in 1967.
In total, about $ 120 billion of the bill’s $ 550 billion in new transportation spending would come in the form of competitive subsidies that would give Mr. Buttigieg discretion to use the money.
A separate social spending bill pending in the House would pay billions of additional dollars to the Department of Transportation, which already expects its annual budget to increase by more than 50% to $ 140 billion.
“That’s a lot of money,” said Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois and Mr. Obama’s transportation secretary, who by comparison presided over the release of $ 48 billion in cash for transportation in the Recovery Act of 2009. Since then, LaHood said, major federal investments in transportation have stalled, creating pent-up demand for highways, bridges and Amtrak projects that can be launched quickly.
It’s both a boon and a challenge for Mr Buttigieg, who revealed in August that he would become a dad with husband Chasten. He took several weeks of paternity leave to care for the twins, before returning in October when Republicans criticized him for leaving his post. Most recently, he juggled time keeping tabs on his baby, who was ill for three weeks and hospitalized with respiratory illness, as he worked to resolve issues in the national supply chain.
“When someone welcomes a new child into their family and goes on leave to care for that child, it’s not a vacation, it’s work,” he said last month. “I’m not going to apologize.”
Starting this week, Mr. Buttigieg will join other Cabinet members to present the plan across the country.
âListen, a lot of this is selling because communities never needed to be persuaded that their bridge needed fixing or that their airport needed an upgrade or that their ports needed to be upgraded. investments, âsaid Mr. Buttigieg. “They tried to get Washington to catch up with them.”
Anthony Foxx, who was Mr. Obama’s transportation secretary from 2013 to 2017, said a big challenge would be the massive operational details in the department, where Mr. Buttigieg is backed by veterans hands. Many programs are new and require clear guidelines for states and localities on what they are eligible for and how the money is to be allocated. “They will be managing several plans with very high amounts, putting pressure on administrative staff,” Foxx said.
On Sunday, Mr Biden appointed former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, who oversaw the city’s reconstruction efforts after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, to monitor the disbursement of the money.
Once you have a lot of programs in place, after six to nine months, Foxx said, âthat’s when the magic happens on what to fund and what doesn’t. mustard â. The winners would come in the form of hundreds of grant announcements for mid-size road projects that could gain momentum through spring 2023 with top prizes for multi-billion dollar bridges, intercity rail and tunnel. New York Gateway.
As mayor, Mr. Buttigieg was sensitive to calls to fix roads and potholes. He liked to talk about a state-of-the-art sewage system. From now on, this message will be national with much higher stakes.
âThe motto of politics is exposure, and it gets a lot of exposure,â said Larry Grisalano, who was Mr. Buttigieg’s advertising consultant.
At the White House, staff warmly call him “Secretary-Mayor Pete,” and Mr. Biden has compared Mr. Buttigieg to his late son Beau. The White House celebrated Chasten’s birthday with cupcakes. “You are the best, man,” Mr Biden said after Mr Buttigieg spoke at the White House over the summer.
Yet in a city loaded with ambition, Mr Buttigieg’s potential to rise further on the national stage may make him a target.
Nina Smith, Mr Buttigieg’s former traveling campaign press secretary, said that as Mr Biden’s main lieutenant on the bill, Mr Buttigieg had the opportunity to lead an effort to “root out injustices the past”. Mr. Buttigieg during the 2020 campaign was never able to win large shares of black voters.
“It’s an added responsibility that I think he is very much aware of and is an integral part of the job,” said Ms Smith, Democratic political consultant.
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Tom Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.