The out, gay, Cabinet member spills the tea about running again, transportation troubles, family life and fighting for LGBTQ+ rights
By Dawn Ennis
The afternoon of January 4 in New London was unusually warm, a 56-degree day, perfect for a politician who presses the flesh without a winter coat, wearing just a dark suit jacket over his trademark starched white shirt and traditional blue tie that perfectly matched his piercing blue eyes. Pete Buttigieg was there for a news conference that day and, like the weather, the welcome was mostly warm.
That is, until Gov. Ned Lamont invited him to step up to the phalanx of video cameras and various microphone,s and he began his remarks. That’s when a car alarm sounded. Then another, and a few more. Each alarm blared so loudly behind the assembled crowd that heads turned away from the politicians and toward the distraction.
One police officer later said he suspected a handful of members of the four construction unions invited to the event staged a demonstration using their “panic alarm” buttons on their vehicle key fobs. This was to express their opinion about Buttigieg’s sexual orientation, he speculated, and an attempt to disrupt the event when it was his turn to speak. But Buttigieg didn’t miss a beat, not once in the 30 seconds it went on.
The last time Buttigieg made news here was in 2019, when he was known as “Mayor Pete.” He stumped for votes and campaign cash in New Canaan—sans jacket—as a Democratic candidate for president best known as the mayor of South Bend, Ind., a Navy veteran who served in the Iraq War, and husband to another man.
Now, Buttigieg is “Secretary Pete,” the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, the first out gay American ever confirmed by the U.S. Senate to a position in a president’s Cabinet, and a dad to two toddlers. On this day, Buttigieg returned to the Shoreline not asking for money, but bringing with him millions in federal funding to fix Connecticut’s longest bridge.
“Secretary Pete, thank you very much for the birthday present,” deadpanned Gov. Lamont as he saluted the Biden administration’s decision to select the 80-year-old Gold Star Memorial Bridge, connecting New London and Groton, as one of only four major bridge projects in the country to receive a grant of $158 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Securing the Supply Chain Between New York and Boston
“We’re really excited about this project,” the secretary told CT Voice in a one-on-one interview, following the news conference with Lamont, Sens. Blumenthal and Murphy, New London Mayor Michael Passero and others. “What you have is one specific region, one specific place that has implications for the entire region and really for the entire country. You think about the national security significance. We think about the economic significance of the freight, as well as the passenger travel that happens on this bridge. I think it’s a great example of why we’re doing this in the first place, when you see a need and see trucks having to go way out of their way to get to where they’re going.”
That 17-mile detour is one reason, given the current weight limit of 40 tons is all the troubled roadway can bear; the safety of the 60,000 dialy drivers and passengers crisscrossing the span across five lanes is another. Plus, that $158 million will not only shore-up the northbound side; it’s estimated to cut a full year off the repair timetable that started in 2022. There are also plans to create a multi-use path for bicyclists and pedestrians to access mass transit.
“If you allow a bridge to go too long without that rehabilitation, it’s like a leaky roof, it only gets more expensive to take care of which is part of why this project succeeded in a very competitive mix,” said Buttigieg.
Will He Run Again?
Speaking of competitive mixes, reporters have been asking the Secretary of Transportation if he’ll hit the campaign trail again for another run for president in 2024, or if he will seek election to an open U.S. Senate seat in Michigan where he lives with his husband, Chasten, and their twins, in Traverse City.
“I love this job, and I feel like we’re right in the middle of the action,” said Buttigieg. “I don’t have any plans to do any job besides the one I’ve got.”
Buttigieg’s job leading D.O.T. is “taking 110 percent of my attention and energy,” he said. He calls it “the best job in the federal government, even if it’s pretty demanding some days.”
Another demand on his time: Raising twins Joseph “Gus” August and Penelope Rose, who will turn two in August. So how does he manage family time given the pressures of his job?
“Every working parent has to figure out a way to make it happen,” said Buttigieg. “I try to be there for Chasten, whether it’s breakfast time today—I was slicing bananas while he was getting their little sweaters on—or when it’s in the evening, I try to be there for bath time every day that I can. Unfortunately, it won’t be possible today, but, you know, we help each other out, as so many parents do. We’re so proud to see our kids grow and thrive and be healthy.”
How are the kiddos? “They’re doing great,” he said. “We got them in day care. They’re pretty much running our world. So, they’re coming up on a year and a half. They’re walking. It’s a very physical thing, trying to keep up with two toddlers. It keeps Chasten, my husband, and me on our toes. But it’s the most beautiful thing that’s ever happened to us. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
When not chasing toddlers, Buttigieg is being chased by Fox News, The New York Post and other conservative media, who have been heavily criticizing him nearly every day; From last year’s supply chain snafus to airline meltdowns at Southwest and the first nationwide ground-stop since 9/11 earlier this year. They also harp on his use of military aircraft to travel, which he’s defended as less expensive than last-minute commercial flights. In one widely seen interview on Fox, he argued it’s customary for Cabinet members leading presidential delegations to take such flights and bring their spouses along, just as it was during the Trump administration.
Even The Daily Beast called him out, accusing Buttigieg of not doing enough to address ongoing airline industry issues.
A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation responded to that report in an email to CT Voice, crediting Buttigieg with creating an online airline customer service dashboard last summer: “D.O.T. is taking action like never before, strengthening consumer protections and both raising the floor of passenger rights and enforcing the current rules. To that end, D.O.T. has issued the largest fines in the history of the consumer protection office this year—helping to get hundreds of thousands of people hundreds of millions of dollars back.
As for Southwest, the D.O.T.’s investigation was in its initial phase as of press time, as was an investigation into an Ohio train derailment and chemical spill.
“The Department will hold Southwest Airlines accountable, including pursuing fines against the carrier. While airlines are private companies and responsible for running their operations, the Department will hold them accountable if they fail to comply with the law and promises made.”
And as for Buttigieg himself, when asked about the detractors who staged a noisy car horn demonstration at the start of his remarks in New London, he was asked if that bothered him.
“Nope. But you know, this can be a noisy business sometimes,” he laughed. “I’m not that worried.”
Fighting For LGBTQ+ Rights
Across the country, hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bills are being introduced in Republican-controlled states, largely aimed at healthcare and school sports for transgender youth. And because families who affirm their children’s identities and fear being labeled as “groomers” and “child abusers” are hitting the federal highways for sanctuary states like Connecticut, California and Massachusetts, CT Voice asked Buttigieg for his reaction as a secretary, a member of the LGBTQ+ community and as a father.
“We want to make sure the transportation system is here for parents, families and kids who need to feel safe,” he said. “But the most important thing is for them not to be in that situation in the first place. So, I’m not just speaking for myself, but this administration is going to continue to push back on this kind of anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ legislation that really is endangering our kids, endangering families.”
“It sends the exact wrong message,” said Buttigieg. “If you’re pro-family, you have to be for every child. And if you believe in supporting parents, you have to believe in supporting parents who are trying to do right by their kids. Unfortunately, what we are seeing is, for nakedly political reasons, like in certain states like Texas, like Florida, we’re seeing the exact opposite of those family values, which I think most of us in America believe in, which is to take care of people and support parents who are trying to support their trans kids.”
Buttigieg Is Back
This particular trip afforded the secretary a brief chance to reconnect with Connecticut.
“First of all, for somebody like me with a connection to the Navy, it means a great deal. It’s always exciting,” he said, referring to the submarine base in Groton, a short drive over the bridge above us. “I arrived a few minutes early, so I could get a cup of chowder; That just kind of hit the spot for me. And just personally, I have so many great friends connected to Connecticut, it’s really exciting to be back here.”
CT Voice asked Buttigieg about the historic and cultural significance of being an out gay man, serving in such a prominent position in the administration, and whether he realizes the impact he’s had.
“Sometimes I do,” he said, and paused. “But I would put it the other way around, which is to say that somebody like me would not have a chance to serve, to live openly, to be raising my kids, to talk about my involvement in infrastructure policy as a member of the president’s Cabinet, and what my husband and I have to do to feed our kids and raise them and support them. That conversation would not even be possible if not for the work and the advocacy of so many in the community who were there even before I was born. And I recognize I am standing on their shoulders, even being able to serve.”
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