Mayor Pete becomes Secretary Pete, with a fan club and unusual celebrity status

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Pete Buttigieg will be the next Transportation secretary, bringing his political celebrity and legion of super fans to a mammoth agency that's not used to headlines — unless they're jokes about "Infrastructure Week."

After four years of leadership under former President Donald Trump's Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, a Washington, D.C., insider who was notoriously unavailable to reporters, DOT has a new leader who made near-daily appearances on cable TV even before the Senate confirmed him in an 86-13 vote Tuesday.

The one-time presidential candidate and former mayor of South Bend, Ind., has fielded questions during cable TV appearances on everything from impeachment to the former administration’s transgender military ban, serving as what amounts to a surrogate for President Joe Biden's policies writ large.

“He is very unique in the sense that he brings a whole group of people from all over the country that got to know him when he ran for president,” said Ray LaHood, former President Barack Obama’s first DOT secretary, in an interview. “They believe in him; they believe in his leadership. He starts out with a huge, huge advantage.”

Now an agency that oversees aviation safety, railroads, transit, highways and more, and has an entire bureaucracy devoted to corralling statistics, will run headfirst into Mayor Pete's throngs of social media fans.

On Twitter, hordes of #TeamPete followers — who sport bumble bee emojis as a nod to a cordial campaign-trail encounter between Buttigieg and a bee — hang on every word written about him. They relentlessly retweet each other and have been studying up on transportation issues, the better to follow the ins and outs of his career turn at DOT.

"From #TeamPete — excited to be learning about the tugboat, towboat and barge industry today! #SecretaryMayorPete" wrote one fan.

Some industry groups have even begun to seize on that dynamic, using #TeamPete hashtags to get more eyes on their issues. And it seems to be working, as Buttigieg's Twitter army has begun to engage — such as one tweet from progressive group Transportation for America, which drew this response from an account calling itself @GoodGuyPete2024: “#TeamPete is a loyal bunch. We are also curious and just nerdy enough to keep you on your toes. #HighwayHopes.”

The AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, an umbrella group for various transportation-related unions, also has been leaning into Buttigieg’s fandom.

“Clearly there is a new audience there, there's some new audience that we want to make sure we reach,” said Greg Regan, the TTD’s secretary-treasurer. “There's an established constituency that already cares about the secretary personally and listens to what he has to say," adding that his group plans to "channel that."

Buttigieg himself has peppered the airwaves with TV hits in the days since his nomination, appearing on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," "CNN Tonight with Don Lemon" and more. For now, he's mostly discussed Biden‘s agenda broadly, as well as his own history-making turn as the first openly gay Cabinet secretary to be confirmed by the Senate. In an interview with Lemon last month, some of his most memorable comments were about Biden's decision to reverse former President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military.

He has made some nods to transportation issues, though those have been typically brief and vague — such as when he told the hosts of "The View" that the Biden administration could address the country’s surge in political extremism by building “trustworthy” infrastructure — “the kinds of things that build up confidence in America as a whole.” In another example, he spoke to a local Fox affiliate in Detroit and CNN about the need to support U.S. manufacturing when Biden signed his “Buy American” executive order.

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Beyond flash, Buttigieg‘s celebrity could breathe life into an ambitious climate-and-infrastructure plan he’ll be tasked with promoting. That's an exciting prospect for transportation wonks both inside and outside the agency tired of stale jokes about the Trump administration’s constant promises to pivot to an infrastructure agenda.

Or, the #TeamPete phenomenon could threaten to crush the agency's priorities under its own weight, if Buttigieg ends up advocating more for Biden’s marquee priorities than for DOT's work.

One of his primary tasks will be shepherding the transportation pieces of Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure vision, in whatever form it might take. He will be aided by deputy secretary-designate Polly Trottenberg, a DOT veteran from Obama’s first term who spent the intervening seven years running the New York City DOT.

Trottenberg, who has also worked for several senators including now-Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, has the Washington credentials and connections to work effectively with Capitol Hill, the White House and beyond.

“Once he gets in the job he’s going to be up to his eyeballs with transportation,” LaHood said, waving off a question about Buttigieg getting distracted by other administration duties. “If he can be an added asset to the Biden administration … that’s an advantage.”

A former DOT official who worked in a Republican administration said Buttigieg is “politically astute enough to know that he’s going to have a lot of attention on the department, and he’ll use that to his advantage.”

“If he channels that excitement around him to actually advocate for more transportation investment, I think that’s a positive,” the official said.

Regan of TTD also said he doubted that Buttigieg would get so swept up in being a surrogate for Biden that he would drop the ball on transportation.

“We saw in his confirmation hearing and we saw when he was running for president the first time how detailed his transportation infrastructure policy platform was that he cares about the details, he's interested in getting to the bottom of these issues and finding out how to solve the problems that are facing us right now,” Regan said.

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