In first for LGBTQ history, Buttigieg confirmed as Cabinet-level appointee

  • by Chris Johnson, Washington Blade
  • Tuesday February 2, 2021
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Pete Buttigieg was confirmed with bipartisan support as transportation secretary. Blade file photo by Michael Key
Pete Buttigieg was confirmed with bipartisan support as transportation secretary. Blade file photo by Michael Key

Pete Buttigieg was approved by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday as transportation secretary with bipartisan support, marking the first-time ever an openly gay person was confirmed to a Cabinet-level position and a long overdue achievement for the LGBTQ community.

The February 2 vote to confirm Buttigieg, 39, the former South Bend mayor who was nominated by President Joe Biden after making waves in the 2020 Democratic primary as an openly gay candidate, was 86-13. The Senate technically hadn't been officially called as of the time of this posting, but Buttigieg as of 1 p.m. (Eastern) was beyond the majority threshold needed for confirmation.

The Democratic caucus was united in support for the Buttigieg. Among the Republicans joining them were Senators John Cornyn (Texas), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Roger Wicker (Mississippi), John Kennedy (Louisiana) and Rob Portman (Ohio).

The 13 Republicans voting no were Senators Ted Cruz (Texas), Tom Cotton (Arkansas), Roger Marshall (Kansas), Rick Scott (Florida), Tommy Tuberville (Alabama), Richard Shelby (Alabama), Josh Hawley (Missouri), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), Marco Rubio (Florida), Tim Scott (South Carolina), James Lankford (Oklahoma), Bill Hagerty (Tennessee), and Bill Cassidy (Louisiana). Many of them are likely 2024 Republican presidential contenders.

Tiffany Woods, a transgender woman who co-chairs the California Democratic Party's LGBTQ Caucus, hailed Buttigieg's "historic confirmation" in a Facebook post shortly after the Senate vote.

"A new generation LGBTQ youth and adults will now have visible representation and inspiration," wrote Woods.

With that vote, Buttigieg and his spouse, Chasten Buttigieg, will, after living in the Midwest, officially become Washington insiders in a script that could be a play on American filmography and be titled, "Mr. Buttigieg Comes to Washington."

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) said on a Senate floor prior to the confirmation vote Buttigieg is an "outstanding nominee" who has "demonstrated an impressive familiarity with our nation's entire transportation challenges," including the proposed gateway tunnel from New Jersey to New York City.

"I know that Mr. Buttigieg is committed to working with members from both sides to improve rail and transit, highways and more in rural communities, urban centers and everywhere in between," Schumer said. "I'm excited to call him 'Secretary Pete' by the end of the day."

The bipartisan vote reflects the confirmation hearing for Buttigieg, when he enjoyed a relatively breezy reception by lawmakers from both parties on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation (with the exception of hostile questions from Cruz).

Buttigieg, during his testimony before the committee, said renewing America's infrastructure would be key to his approach as transportation secretary in the Biden administration. Buttigieg also said any renewal of the transportation system would be sensitive to racial equity, which is consistent with Biden's campaign pledge to tackle systemic racism.

Shattering barrier

Annise Parker, CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, said in a statement Buttigieg "shattered a centuries-old political barrier" by winning Senate confirmation to a Cabinet-level role as an openly gay person with bipartisan support.

"While his confirmation is historic, Pete is focused on the difficult task ahead," Parker said. "America is in desperate need of a revitalized transportation effort and his two terms as mayor provide the experience and perspective needed to propose bold solutions. America is fortunate to have Pete as their secretary of transportation."

Buttigieg obtains the historic designation amid a dispute over whether or not he should be considered the first openly gay person to serve in a Cabinet role. During the Trump administration, Richard Grenell served as acting director of national intelligence, a Cabinet-level role. Grenell, however, never sought or obtained Senate confirmation for the position, although he was confirmed for his concurrent position as U.S. ambassador to Germany.

James Hormel, who became the first openly gay ambassador in U.S. history in 1999 after former President Bill Clinton designated him in a recess appointment as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, said Buttigieg can rightfully claim the title of first openly gay Cabinet official because of the "acting" nature of Grenell's role, although the Trump White House had insisted the distinction belongs to Grenell.

Undisputedly, however, Buttigieg is the first openly gay person to obtain Senate confirmation specifically for a Cabinet-level position.

To be sure, other openly gay people have obtained Senate confirmation, just not for Cabinet-level roles. The first was former San Francisco supervisor Roberta Achtenberg, who was confirmed in 1993 as assistant secretary for the Department of Housing & Urban Development.

The long list includes presidential appointees, ambassadors, and judicial nominations, many of them for senior positions just shy of Cabinet-level roles. Among them is Fred Hochberg; who served in the Obama years as head of the Export-Import Bank; Eric Fanning, confirmed as Army secretary after a long battle in the Senate in 2016; and Patrick Bumatay, appointed by Trump to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and now the highest-ranking out federal judge.

In many ways, Buttigieg's confirmation as openly gay person to a Cabinet-level position is a long overdue vote buttoning up the progress and historic confirmations the LGBTQ community have achieved in years past.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) was one of several senators to praise Buttigieg.

"Pete Buttigieg will make an excellent secretary of transportation and I'm pleased the Senate has confirmed his nomination," she stated. "As a former mayor myself, I believe his municipal background will bring a fresh perspective to the Department of Transportation and its 13 agencies. I look forward to working with Secretary Buttigieg to make sure California's unique authority to set tailpipe emissions standards is preserved and its transportation infrastructure is ready to meet the needs of our growing economy."

Senator Gary Peters (D-Michigan), was among the senators who took to the Senate floor in support of Buttigieg and gave a shout-out to Chasten Buttigieg.

"As a Midwesterner, and as a husband to a Michigander who was born and raised in Traverse City, Secretary-designate Buttigieg fully recognizes the need to protect the Great Lakes," Peters said. "I agree with Mayor Pete's belief that he says, 'Good transportation policy can play no less a role than making possible the American Dream.'"

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) also praised Buttigieg on the Senate floor and said she "enthusiastically" supports Buttigieg because he's up to facing the nations transportation challenges.

"I look forward to the type of focus that he can give to the Department of Transportation," Cantwell added. "This area of our government, right now, needs to address the COVID crisis, it needs to help us plan for a better transportation system of the future and it needs to understand that this transportation infrastructure and investment in these changes in these sectors of cars and planes and passenger systems are all changing industries, and so our competitiveness will be at stake as well."

Another Biden nominee, Dr. Rachel Levine, may soon achieve another first for the LGBTQ community upon confirmation as assistant secretary of health and become the first openly transgender person to obtain Senate confirmation.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, congratulated Buttigieg for his "historic confirmation" in a statement.

"This confirmation breaks through a barrier that has existed for too long; where LGBTQ identity served as an impediment to nomination or confirmation at the highest level of government," David said. "Let this important moment for our movement serve as a reminder to every LGBTQ young person: you too can serve your country in any capacity you earn the qualifications to hold."

David also credited Biden for achieving the historic first for the LGBTQ community, saying Buttigieg's confirmation follows through on a commitment to diversity.

"President Biden promised to deliver an administration representative of the diversity of this nation, and this confirmation is a significant achievement toward that goal," David said.

Ruben Gonzales, executive director of LGBTQ Victory Institute, said in a statement Buttigieg's confirmation is a "testament" to both Biden's commitment to inclusively and the American people's "willingness to judge a leader by their qualifications, not their sexual orientation."

"Each new political barrier broken inspires more LGBTQ people to consider careers in public service, a virtuous cycle we will accelerate until equitable representation is achieved," Gonzales added.

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