Since he became the first openly gay man to run for president and the first to win a presidential caucus, Pete Buttigieg has been making history. On Dec. 16, Buttigieg made history again when President-elect Joe Biden formally nominated him to be his Transportation Secretary. The former South Bend, Indiana mayor is set to become the first openly gay man to be confirmed by the Senate as a Cabinet member.
If confirmed, Buttigieg, 38, will also be one of the youngest presidential cabinet members in history and the youngest since Robert F. Kennedy was confirmed as Attorney General in 1961 at age 35.
In his speech from Wilmington, Delaware, Biden touted the groundbreaking appointment and the diversity of the Biden/Harris administration, noting that “by the end of this process, this Cabinet will be the most representative of any Cabinet in American history. We’ll have more people of color than any Cabinet ever, we’ll have more women than any Cabinet ever. We’ll have a Cabinet of barrier breakers. A Cabinet of firsts.”
Buttigieg’s selection also represents the first time the President-elect has chosen one of his former Democratic presidential opponents to join his administration as a Cabinet secretary. Biden had previously said Buttigieg reminded him of his late son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015.
In his introduction to the nomination, Biden said, “I got to know Pete on the campaign trail. He is one of the smartest people you will ever meet and one of the most humble.”
Biden also referenced Buttigieg as a gay man, saying that he and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, an educator, had spent time with Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, a teacher. Biden joked that it was “always a mark of good character” to be married to a teacher.
Biden said that Buttigieg is “A mayor from the heartland, a management expert, a policy wonk with a big heart, a veteran, intelligence officer deployed to Afghanistan while he was mayor. A new voice with new ideas, determined to move past old politics.”
Biden also said Buttigieg has a vision to help people today and advance racial and other equity and deal with the “existential threat posed by the climate crisis.”
For his part, Buttigieg balanced his speech with a combination of the wonkiness that Biden described. He detailed his history with infrastructure as mayor of South Bend as well as his plans for the department. And he reflected on the emotional and historic moment for him as a gay man and for LGBTQ people as a group.
Buttigieg said, “Thank you so much for entrusting me with this. This is a moment of tremendous opportunity — to create jobs, meet the climate challenge, and enhance equity for all. I’m honored that the President-elect has asked me to serve our nation as Secretary of Transportation.”
While Buttigieg spoke of his own “personal love of transportation ever since childhood,” he also spoke passionately of how essential it is to improve the country’s infrastructure and make it accessible to everyone and a catalyst for social change, alluding to President Trump’s unfulfilled promises on that issue.
“Americans expect us to see to it that the idea of an infrastructure week is associated with results and never again a media punchline,” he said.
He said he loved transportation so much and noted that he proposed to Chasten in an airport terminal. “Travel in my mind is synonymous with adventure, growth, and, even love, so much so that I proposed to my husband, Chasten, in an airport terminal. Don’t let anyone tell you O’Hare isn’t romantic.”
Buttigieg added, “And let me take this chance to thank Chasten for all that he does, and for his sacrifices, to support me in pursuing public service.”
Buttigieg spoke about what the promise of the department he heads offers: “At its best, transportation makes the American dream possible. Getting people and goods to where they need to be. Directly and indirectly creating good paying jobs.” But he also pointed out how other administrations had failed people on this issue, noting, “At its worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities can reinforce racial, economic and environmental injustice. Dividing or isolating neighborhoods.”
A fierce supporter of climate action, Buttigieg also referenced that in his speech — as well as his relative youth. The youngest person to ever run for president, Buttigieg had frequently referenced the age difference between him and his competitors, particularly Biden, the oldest nominee in history.
In his speech he said, “My view of this opportunity is also shaped by being the youngest member named so far to this Cabinet, and the first Millennial to be at that table. Newer generations have a lot at stake in infrastructure policy that, by its nature, must contemplate both the immediate and the long-term. The question of how America will look by the middle of this century — the competitiveness of our economy, the security of our climate — for me this is not academic, it’s personal.”
Addressing the fact he was making LGBTQ history, Buttigieg said, “I am also mindful that the eyes of history are on this appointment–knowing this is the first time an American president has ever sent an openly LGBTQ cabinet nominee to the Senate for confirmation.”
Then Buttigieg told a personal story about watching James Hormel, an openly gay man President Bill Clinton nominated to be ambassador to Luxembourg, denied Senate approval.
“I can remember watching the news, seventeen years old, and seeing a story about an appointee of President Clinton, named to be an ambassador, attacked and ultimately denied a vote in the Senate, because he was gay — ultimately able to serve only by a recess appointment,” Buttigieg said.
He explained, “I was a long way from coming out, even to myself. But still, I watched that story, and I learned about some of the limits that exist in this country when it comes to who is allowed to belong. And just as important, I saw how those limits could be challenged.”
He ended his speech saying, “Two decades later, I can’t help but think of a seventeen-year-old who might be watching right now, someone who wonders whether and where they belong in the world, or even in their own family, and I’m thinking about the message today’s announcement is sending to them.”
After Buttigieg’s remarks, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, appearing virtually, said “Pete is an innovative problem solver. He has a sharp intellect and a deep commitment to uniting people across party lines, and meeting our challenges together. He is a trailblazing leader from the industrial midwest who understands we need to create opportunity for people of all backgrounds.”
Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement,
“Mayor Pete Buttigieg was open and honest about his identity throughout his time on the national scene, giving a voice to our community, and a new vision of who and how our leaders can love. His voice as a champion for the LGBTQ community in the Cabinet room will help President-elect Biden build back our nation better, stronger and more equal than before.”
David urged “speedy confirmation” of Buttigieg and said “this is an historic moment for our community, though not the end of our advocacy.”
After he spoke, Buttigieg posted his final comment on Twitter.
“There is no greater source of meaning in professional life than the chance to serve others. I felt it every time I laced up my boots in the military. I felt it every day serving my community as mayor. And I feel it now, joining this historic team.”