Two years ago, Pete Buttigieg was the little-known mayor of South Bend, Indiana, about to launch a highly improbable run for the presidency. Now, after a campaign that briefly propelled him to front-runner status and then a media blitz that made him perhaps the most successful campaign surrogate for President-elect Joe Biden, he is on the cusp of being the next Secretary of Transportation—and the first openly gay person ever confirmed for a cabinet post in the nation’s history.
Biden announced on Tuesday that he would appoint Buttigieg to the post, calling his former campaign rival “a patriot and a problem-solver who speaks to the best of who we are as a nation.” The pick was hailed by the Human Rights Campaign, which last month urged the president-elect to appoint LGBTQ people to senior posts in his administration. “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,” Alphonso David, the president of the HRC, said in a statement issued after the news began to leak out.
Buttigieg will technically not be the first openly gay person to fill a cabinet-level post, but the person who holds that distinction—Richard Grenell, who briefly served as Donald Trump’s acting director of national intelligence—was never confirmed by the Senate. (Some conservative media outlets have criticized the “first openly gay” designation bestowed upon Buttigieg, saying it diminishes Grenell’s achievement. “Such claims amount to whitewashing President Donald Trump’s promotion of his administration’s first ambassador to Germany, Ric Grenell, to serve as director of national intelligence from February to May this year–a Cabinet-level position,” The Federalist’s Tristan Justice wrote on Wednesday.)
So far, Biden’s administration is shaping up to be one of the most diverse in history when it comes to LGBTQ representation. Karine Jean-Pierre, the chief of staff for Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, was recently announced as deputy White House press secretary, and Pili Tobar, an immigration rights advocate and former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer, was named deputy White House communications director. Carlos Elizondo, who was Biden’s social secretary when Biden was vice president, has been named White House social secretary.
On Tuesday, Buttigieg tweeted his gratitude for the nomination:
And on Wednesday, his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, noted the historic nature of his appointment:
If confirmed, the 38-year-old Buttigieg will also be the first millennial to hold a senior position in the Biden administration and one of the youngest cabinet members in history. Julián Castro was 39 when Barack Obama appointed him housing secretary in 2014 and Alexander Hamilton was in his mid-30s when he became the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.
In his remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday, before formally introducing his pick for Secretary of Transportation, Biden touted the diversity of his appointments so far, saying that, by the time he was through, his cabinet would have the most women and the most people of color in history. It would be, Biden said, “a cabinet of barrier breakers, cabinet of firsts—a cabinet that looks like America.”
Buttigieg started off his speech by talking about his longtime love of trains, planes, and other forms of transportation, disclosing that he had actually proposed to Chasten in an airport terminal. (“So don’t let anyone tell you that O’Hare is not romantic,” he joked.)
Then, in addition to saying that under his leadership, “the idea of ‘infrastructure’ week would be associated with results and never again a media punchline,” he talked about the significance of what was happening on this socially distanced stage of the Queen Theater.
“I’m also mindful that the eyes of history are on this appointment, knowing that this is the first time an American president has ever sent an openly LGBTQ cabinet member to the Senate for confirmation,” Buttigieg said. He recalled watching the news, as 17-year-old, when then-President Bill Clinton tried to appoint an openly gay ambassador, only to have that pick vilified and ultimately tabled until Clinton could make a recess appointment. “Two decades later,” Buttigieg said, “I can’t help but think of a 17-year-old somewhere who might be watching us right now, somebody who wonders whether and where they belong, in the world or even in their own family, and I’m thinking about the message that today’s announcement is sending to them.”
Buttigieg was a fierce and often highly critical opponent of Biden in the early days of the 2020 presidential campaign. But once he dropped out, right before Super Tuesday, Buttigieg became an equally fierce surrogate for the Democratic nominee, particularly in his appearances on Fox News where he skillfully parried with the Trump-leaning hosts and matter-of-factly pointed out the repeated falsehoods being perpetuated by the president.
One regular Fox viewer was apparently not happy with the airtime given to the young politician. “Hard to believe that @FoxNews is wasting airtime on Mayor Pete, as Chris Wallace likes to call him,” Donald Trump tweeted shortly before one appearance. “Fox is moving more and more to the losing (wrong) side in covering the Dems. They got dumped from the Democrats boring debates, and they just want in. They forgot the people who got them there.”