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Mayor Pete Heads to Washington

President-elect Joe Biden nominated his former political rival Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation.
President-elect Joe Biden nominated his former political rival Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation.

It would have been nice if Joe Biden picked someone with relevant experience to head the Department of Transportation. Instead, he used a Cabinet post to repay some political debts.

Pete Buttigieg counts as a “two-fer.” He was the first Democratic candidate for president to endorse Biden – at a critical juncture in the Democrats’ primary process – after ending his own campaign. And he’s a darling of the “progressive” wing of the party.

A broad swath of the US transportation industry is staggering out of 2020 with massive financial losses and crushing debt, weak demand for its services, and a workforce decimated by COVID, layoffs, and uncertainty about their futures.

A savvy Washington veteran at the helm of DOT – or a business executive experienced in leading large organizations – could help craft programs and find turnaround solutions for the transportation industry once COVID is brought under control.

Instead, we get “Mayor Pete,” a person who was born in South Bend, IN, grew up in South Bend, and became mayor of the city at age 29 in 2012. What does he know about transportation? Well, the South Bend Public Transportation Corp (Transpo) operates a fleet of 60 buses on 18 routes serving a population base of just over 100,000 people, so there’s that.

By contrast, the US Department of Transportation has more than 57,000 employees and an annual budget approaching $90 billion. The Department’s largest component, FAA, employs 40,000 workers, including 14,000 air traffic controllers who safely handle 45,000 flights per day across 24 million square miles of airspace.

But FAA is just one piece of DOT. Mayor Pete also will be overseeing the Federal Highway Administration (and its 615,000 bridges, many of them crumbling); the Federal Motor Carrier Administration (millions of trucks and inter-city buses); the Federal Railroad Administration (538 railroads moving more freight than any other freight rail system in the world); the Federal Transit Administration; the Maritime Administration (cruise lines to freighters); the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration; and, the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.

How long will it take Mayor Pete to get up to speed on all the elements of DOT, the responsibilities of those agencies, and meet/begin to assess the capabilities of the people in key leadership and operational posts? Then there is the formidable task of forging working relationships with leaders of the airline, railroad, trucking and shipping companies – plus scores of trade association executives who represent those industries in Washington.

Mayor Pete is certifiably book smart. He was the valedictorian of his South Bend high school class in 2000. He also is a 2007 magna cum laude graduate of Harvard and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University.

Besides academics, Mayor Pete’s public passion always has been politics. He worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 and on a congressional campaign in 2006. In 2008, he took a leave of absence from a job at McKinsey & Company to work on the unsuccessful campaign of a Democrat running for governor of Indiana.

In 2010, Buttigieg ran for state treasurer of Indiana, and lost. The following year, he won his first term as mayor. And in 2017, he pushed onto the national political stage, seeking the post of Democratic National Committee chairman. But he dropped out weeks later, just before DNC members cast their votes.

If confirmed, Buttigieg will move into that big office at DOT headquarters with no Washington experience and nearly zero transportation industry insight. He’ll find legions of people knocking on his door beseeching him to help save the jobs of people who work in their companies. Mayor Pete is about to discover that finding solutions to national problems and dealing with congressional committees is a lot more challenging than getting an A on a school test and making political promises.

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