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Ask about airline mergers, electric vehicle chargers, or the massive infrastructure law that may become President Joe Biden’s legacy, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg slides into technocratic policy talk. Versed in the nuances and footnotes of the challenges of trucker parking, railroad crossings, and urban planning, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., knows his material and can lecture in paragraphs. It’s like listening to a ChatGPT readout in real time, but with a Midwest accent that can appeal to the electorate.
But ask the former—and maybe future—presidential candidate about the ongoing attack on LGBTQ rights in this country and the most-senior-ever gay official in government grows more intense. For him, his husband, and their twins, the drumbeat of criticism and mockery from conservative corners of activists and media has proven treacherous and tedious. And while it doesn’t get the attention it did right after Buttigieg availed himself of parental leave and work-from-home flexibility, Buttigieg is skeptical that the hate mongering ever really dropped out of his timelines.
“I don’t think it’s faded. I think it’s gotten worse,” he told TIME toward the end of an hour-long conversation last week in our D.C. bureau conference room. Noting that he dropped twins Penelope and Gus at daycare right before our breakfast-time chat on June 9 and parked the minivan on the curb, he quickly turned back to the serious threat that anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is posing to his community.
“I think we’re actually in an exceptionally ugly moment in terms of some figures deciding that there’s utility, political utility, in targeting trans people and LGBTQ people more generally,” he says before pointing toward the 36 Republican Senators and 169 House members who voted against last year’s Respect For Marriage Act that provides some protections for same-sex unions. “I mean, look how many people voted against marriage equality—which should have been an easy one—just as recently as a few months ago. And so I think it’s a reminder that none of what’s been gained is really locked in.”
So is marriage equality as vulnerable as abortion proved to be when the Supreme Court broke a half-century of precedent to overturn Roe v. Wade? Or is the 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges safe? “I don’t think so. I don’t think anything is safe. I mean, Roe fell and that was the law of the land for longer than I’ve been alive. Nothing is safe. Especially right now,” a grim Buttigieg told me.
This is the frightening reality of LGBTQ rights in this country at the moment. Having secured a victory on abortion, the culture warriors have turned to identity politics as an animating force. Polls consistently show the appeal of this posture to be limited. Banning books, canceling drag queens, and regulating health care may win some hard-right lawmakers plaudits from the right, but they are actually slagging GOP hopes of winning over the center of his country that simply wants the government to work quietly in the background.
Buttigieg sees nothing but trouble for this approach, yet acknowledges his position of privilege. “The situation of an upper-middle-class, married white gay dude is not the same as a trans kid in Texas, or any number of LGBTQ people of color trying to survive right now,” he says. “They see political value in this. I see not only distraction, but a very real harm that’s being done. And that’s gonna persist until they figure out that it is not rewarding politically for them.”
But, as is so often the case, that prospect of winning over the middle—and winning elections—is a problem for another day, especially among the politicians looking to win the GOP presidential nomination next year. In fact, the Republicans’ chief cultural agitator is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is betting his bitter feud with Walt Disney World over its perceived wokeness and aggressive inclusion—not to mention a broader attack against LGBTQ rights—can help him overtake former President Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the 2024 nomination.
DeSantis clearly hopes that his role in pushing and doubling-down on “Don’t Say Gay” legislation for schools, banning the teaching of AP Black History courses, and a perpetual snit with Disney is sufficient to win him credibility with activists in the early nominating states. But his leadership is affecting Floridians in other ways that connect directly to Buttigieg’s mandate. Take, for instance, an in-the-works rail line that would connect Miami to Tampa, by way of a potential station near the Disney empire near Orlando. It stands to benefit from the federal pile of infrastructure dollars in a big way. Yet amid the fight with DeSantis, Disney pulled the plug on a station at its shopping center at Disney Springs, on top of a $1 billion office expansion. The train now instead is likely to head toward the Orange County Convention Center in central Florida, but the project is already losing out on the potential a bigger chunk of cash from Washington the longer it languishes. (Transportation Department aides note the Brightline project has received $31 million during Buttigieg’s tenure, including almost $16 million to finish the leg between Orlando and Tampa to relieve congestion on the I-4 corridor.)
Buttigieg says he has never been able to connect with DeSantis on the transportation issues that affect both of their current roles. In fact, Buttigieg says he has phoned DeSantis but has never spoken with him. “I’ve never heard from this Governor, and it’s not because I’ve never called him. We’ve never spoken. What I will say is we’ve done a lot of good work with the Florida Department of Transportation,” Buttigieg says. “We try to work around and through all that to just get stuff done. A huge amount of energy and effort is being wasted in these dumb fights. And that’s really unfortunate. It’s policy waste in order to achieve political benefit or perceived political benefit.”
Then, Buttigieg lands the dismissal with a characteristic blend of politics with policy: “He’s more worried about Bud Light or Disney or whatever.”
That, right there, is why no one should forget Buttigieg, who has taken the typically sleepy Transportation Secretary role and made himself a prime spokesman for Biden’s infrastructure spending. Biden has taken to joshing the 41-year-old Buttigieg about his ubiquity on television, calling him “TV” before a Cabinet meeting back in January. Buttigieg clearly has a skill in selling the massive pile of cash Congress has allocated, and that stream of federal dollars could help Biden as he heads into reelection mode, arguing his accomplishments outweigh the culture war critiques of DeSantis and other Republicans.
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