Biden picks Buttigieg for USDOT chief over Emanuel, who would have been a divisive choice

Pete Buttigieg campaigning in Chicago last January. Image: ABC7 Chicago
Pete Buttigieg campaigning in Chicago last January. Image: ABC7 Chicago

Update 12/15/20, 6 PM: The Active Transportation Alliance provided the following statement

If confirmed, Pete Buttigieg has an opportunity to reverse decades of car-centric transportation policy that’s isolated marginalized communities and critically harmed our planet. He must embrace fair funding for public transit and road safety policies that protect people walking and biking.

His infrastructure plan when running for president includes some encouraging signs, including centering climate, health, and equity impacts when evaluating roadway projects and doubling funding for the nation’s largest bike-ped infrastructure program.

I gave a sigh of relief when I heard president-elect Joe Biden opted against appointing widely-reviled ex-Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to be the next U.S. transportation chief, as some D.C. insiders predicted he would. Instead he chose Biden’s former presidential rival former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Other people discussed as possible candidates for the job included Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti; Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo; current and former New York City transportation commissioners Polly Trottenberg and Janette Sadik-Khan, and ex-Chicago transportation chief Gabe Klein (whom I endorsed.) Trottenberg and Klein were on Biden’s Department of Transportation transition team.

Emanuel had an overall strong record on transportation in our city, with the O’Hare Express boondoggle being the major exception. But his legacy is forever tainted by his decision to cover up the 2014 police murder of Black Chicago teen Laquan McDonald in order to win reelection, disqualifying him from further public service. A person who prioritizes their political ambitions above public safety and racial justice has proved themself unfit to hold office. And in the wake of the year’s Black Lives Matters protests, Biden hiring Emanuel would send a clear message that he’s not taking the urgent need for racial reckoning seriously.

Strictly from a pragmatic standpoint, picking Emanuel as U.S. Department of Transportation chief would have been a foolish choice for Biden. Progressive politicians like national standard-bearer New York Congressional rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Democratic Socialist Chicago aldermen like Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, and Daniel LaSpata made it clear the idea was a non-starter. By appointing Emanuel, Biden would have kicked off his administration with ill will from the left that would have likely included hundreds or even thousands of justifiably angry protesters filling the streets of Chicago. (Emanuel may still be under consideration for U.S. trade rep, which Ocasio-Cortez has also said would be a “shameful” appointment.)

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Emanuel opens Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail in June 2015. Photo: John Greenfield

Granted, many progressives aren’t fans of Buttigieg either. For example, as South Bend mayor, his own record on policing, which included firing the city’s first Black police chief, wasn’t stellar. But even if you feel Buttigieg wasn’t a great pick, maybe we can agree that it’s a good thing Biden didn’t appoint Emanuel, who would have been a really bad, unethical choice.

From a glass-half-full, Chicago-centric point of view, I can see several positive aspects of having Buttigieg as USDOT secretary. He will be the first openly LGBTQ person to hold the post, which has already had a notably diverse roster in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender over the last few decades. While representation obviously isn’t the only thing that matters, it does matter, and Buttigieg would have just about the most powerful job ever held in Washington by an openly gay person, with the possible exception of former Massachusetts Congressional rep Barney Frank.

Buttigieg has previously lived and worked in Chicago as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. And South Bend is linked to our city via the South Shore Line commuter railroad, and is therefore practically part of the Chicago metropolitan area. So it’s likely Buttigieg has a decent grasp of our city’s current transportation challenges and opportunities. That will be handy for securing federal money for projects like the $2.3 billion CTA Red Line extension.

Buttigieg is also something of a rail advocate. In 2018 he pushed to extend the South Shore Line from its current eastern terminus at the South Bend airport into the city center. On the other hand, some argue that the city’s bus service was sub-par during his administration.

The USDOT job will be especially important under Biden, since one of the president-elect’s goals is to win bipartisan support for a major infrastructure spending bill to help jump-start the pandemic-ravaged economy. According to a CNN report, a key plank of Buttigieg’s presidential platform was a $1 trillion infrastructure plan with an emphasis on upgrading our nation’s deteriorating roads, bridges, and rail network, as well as expanding broadband Internet access.

So while I can understand why some people might not be overjoyed about Buttigieg as the next transportation chief, I’d argue that we, especially Chicagoans, could have done a lot worse.

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