Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at Fels

Buttigieg’s discussion with Fels Distinguished Fellow Elizabeth Vale was part of the Fels Public Policy in Practice series.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sits at his desk in Washington, D.C., in a split screen zoom chat with Elizabeth Vale from Fels Institute of Government in the right frame.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Fels Distinguished Fellow Elizabeth Vale (right) had a wide-ranging chat as part of the Fels Public Policy in Practice series. (Image: Courtesy of Fels Institute of Government)

In a conversation ranging from how he handled critics of his youth when he was serving as a mayor to how he works across the aisle and why he has hope for democracy’s future, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg spoke with Fels Distinguished Fellow Elizabeth Vale. The chat was part of the Fels Institute of Government Public Policy in Practice series, designed to provide students with a variety of perspectives and compelling personal narratives that will help inform their opinions on important issues and shape their careers, also featured questions from attendees.

As the 19th secretary of transportation, Buttigieg has worked to build a transportation system with a focus on safety, jobs, equity, climate, and innovation. He supported the development, passage, and delivery of President Biden’s signature Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. He has also focused on interventions to support American supply chains, launched a comprehensive national roadway-safety strategy, and awarded billions of dollars in discretionary funding to enhance transportation through thousands of projects across the country.

The first openly gay person confirmed to serve in a president’s Cabinet, Buttigieg previously served two terms as mayor of his hometown, South Bend, Indiana. He also served for seven years as an officer in the Navy Reserve, taking a leave of absence from the mayor’s office for a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014.

At the event at Fels, Vale asked what inspired Buttigieg as a young person to pursue public service and how growing up in the Midwest shaped his values.

He said the household he grew up in was not a politically connected one, but it was a very politically conscious one. “It was the kind of family where somebody was always yelling at the TV, whatever was on the evening news,” he said. “My parents would feel very passionately about it, and we would talk about it at dinner and talk about decisions that were being made, decisions that should have been made differently in their view.”

Growing up, he said he wanted to be an airline pilot, and he viewed the people who were involved in those political decisions as belonging to a different category than him, but that changed with various experiences he was offered. As a high schooler, he shadowed the mayor of South Bend to see what the job was about. Once he got to Harvard, he said he had the opportunity to attend programs like the one Fels was hosting, where the speakers who were cabinet secretaries, senators and governors would come to campus. 

“I began to realize that while those people might be more experienced than I was or more intelligent than I was, they were not on a different plane of existence,” he said. “I began to realize that I could be involved in a different way in public service. I still didn’t know that it would mean that the path that I wound up on, but it really prompted me to get into elected public service.”

He and Vale went on to discuss how his role as mayor prepared him for the national stage and what the infrastructure act will do and how the benefits of the act bolster democracy. 

“It has to do with the durability of our democracy,” Buttigieg said. “The reason is that so much of the legitimacy of any form of government rests on how it does in delivering the basics.” He pointed to the example from the 1930s and the excuses people made for Mussolini that he might be a tough guy but made the trains run on time, noting that this was actually wasn’t true.

“They’d say, ‘Maybe it’s a dictatorship, but they get things done.’ It’s very important for us to prove otherwise. It’s very important for the legitimacy of democracy for us to demonstrate that a democratic system—messy though it might be—is better equipped to deliver on everyday life than the alternatives. I think that’s part of how we won the Cold War,” he said, “as much as our military might. It was that the U.S. delivered a better everyday life. These are very concrete, workaday things that wind up having colossal stakes.”

Vale asked how he manages to work across the aisle to pass legislation, how the U.S. economy has rebounded so powerfully, and why it seems hard to communicate that rebound to the public.

“I can’t claim any magic spells when it comes to bipartisanship. But I will say that I think the infrastructure act package shows that it can be done,” he said.

As for the recovery of the U.S. economy and the weaker-than-expected public perception of it, Buttigieg said, “When you get that $35-a-month insulin dose, the pharmacist doesn’t hand you a flyer saying, ‘By the way this is because of the Biden administration.’”

He also noted that anybody who’s been in a relationship knows that you don’t go into a conversation with someone who is feeling upset and say things like, “You’re wrong to feel the way you feel. You shouldn’t feel this way. You should feel a different way.” The same goes for citizens who are upset about the economy, he said.

“That’s the last thing that we should be doing with people who still feel pain for prices being elevated, whose expectations and possibilities have changed because interest rates are higher than they were a few years ago, for those recovering from the generational trauma of COVID,” he said.  

What the administration needs to do, he said, is talk about the most important thing of all, which isn’t what they’ve done, but what they plan to do, like $35 insulin caps not just for seniors but for all Americans and raising the minimum wage. “These are things that Biden proposes to do next that most Americans believe in and that really illustrate the most important contrast over different economic visions competing for dominance in today’s official Washington.”

Vale asked how he handled criticism of his youth when he was elected mayor at 28 and how that relates to Biden’s age critics.

“I think President Biden’s best response on the question of his age is not that different from the best response available to me when my age was questioned for a very different reason when I was a young mayor, and it’s that the most important thing any of us has to offer in public life is results,” he said. 

As a citizen, he says he thinks a lot more about what a leader will deliver than about how old they are or their ethnicity, race, or orientation. “What matters most is what they have to offer and what they’ve done, and I got my community to agree and to judge me based on what we delivered for the city and how the city’s trajectory changed,” he said. “I believe President Biden’s leadership is part of why the United States trajectory has changed for the better.” 

The talk then turned to questions from the audience, which tackled topics from public transportation and how Buttigieg communicates complicated policies in such relatable ways to how he approaches problem solving in our polarized political landscape and motivates people to work toward common goals.

Vale asked the final question, and she offered two: What would he have liked to have told his 25-year-old self and could he give the audience some hope for the future of the country?

Buttigieg said he’d tell himself how much value and power there is at the local level because he came out of undergraduate and graduate school thinking that all of the action was in international politics and policy. “I never would have imagined the challenges, the adventure, the discovery, the complexity that was waiting for me in situations unfolding less than a mile from my own house until I became steeped in the life of my own community,” he said. 

At 25, he said he was wondering if being gay would end his career. “It would have been nice to know that I actually did not have to choose between things I cared about like public service and military service, and things I care about even more like falling in love and starting a family,” he said.

One thing that gives him hope for the future is being a parent and “not having the luxury of being anything but hopeful because too much depends—for them—on us figuring this stuff out,” he said. 

Buttigieg spoke directly to the students in the audience telling them that it was up to them to figure how to keep democracy running.

“It’s up to anybody who’s in public policy, anybody who’s in a position of responsibility and anybody who is studying at an advanced level the pulleys and levers of government while our democracy comes under the toughest pressures that it's seen even by some measures since the Civil War, to figure this out because our everyday life depends on it,” he said. “And everyday life, in the end, is what all politics and policies are about.”

A video recording of the full interview can be found on the Fels Institue of Government's YouTube channel: