Jack Colwell: ‘Secretary Pete’ will need street smarts

Jack Colwell
For The Republic

Mayor Pete brought smart streets, smart sewers and other infrastructure improvements to South Bend.

Some constituents preferred the streets the way they had been, dumb or not. They liked fewer bike lanes and when streets offered more speed, less aesthetics. But the downtown was revitalized, population grew and civic pride was enhanced.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg now faces other needs for infrastructure improvements. This time, the scope is nationwide, involving everything from replacing crumbling bridges to modernizing our third-world airports, from improving safety of water and power systems to meeting highway needs and providing widespread internet service. Funding will come from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

Buttigieg will use some of the same approaches he relied on in South Bend to get things done. Challenges are a heck of a lot bigger. How he meets them will determine not only his political future, but also how successfully the nation tackles problems neglected for decades.

He described himself as “a tech-oriented mayor,” with data-driven decisions, but with realization that more than just efficiency must be considered in evaluating the impact on people. He will be a tech-oriented secretary of transportation, but with realization that politics must be considered in seeking to do anything in Washington.

Just as some South Bend residents grumbled about bike lanes, critics will find fault. Some Republicans already call the infrastructure bill a socialist scheme. Some Democrats will be irate when pet projects aren’t funded.

Mistakes will be made. That’s inevitable with so many projects everywhere. Anything falling flat or sounding silly will be featured in campaign advertising and in Fox News commentary.

Most of all, Buttigieg must guard against corruption with bidding or with payments going astray. He was diligent in guarding against such things as mayor. But it will be harder to prevent some corruption somewhere in the nation.

The first transportation crisis Buttigieg faced was personal, the ambulance trips to the hospital for his newly born adopted son, on a ventilator during “terrifying” weeks as both of the twins adopted by Pete and Chasten Buttigieg battled a virus.

Now, after the health crisis, Buttigieg is back with TV appearances as key spokesman for the infrastructure projects. His task is tougher due to the long delay before squabbling House Democrats finally passed the monumental bill. Meanwhile, popularity of the president and the bill suffered.

The bill was highly popular back when it was passed in the Senate with bipartisan support. It passed with over a third of Republicans, 19 of them, including Republican leader Mitch McConnell, joining the unanimous Democrats for passage.

By the time it finally passed in the House, only 13 Republicans out of 213 supported the bill. The Republican votes were essential, however, when six progressive Democrats voted to kill it amid lingering concerns about social safety net legislation.

House Republican leaders urged a “no” vote because passage would be a victory for President Biden. They see Biden and congressional Democrats as on the ropes.

The 13 Republican supporters, including Congressman Fred Upton in Michigan, received threats of removal from committees and threats of personal harm.

McConnell remained supportive. “We have a lot of infrastructure needs, both in rural areas and with big bridges.” McConnell said. “It’s a godsend for Kentucky.”

Here’s another problem for Buttigieg. When there are approval announcements, ground breakings and ribbon cuttings, who gets invited? McConnell will when the long-needed new bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio is approved. Upton will for infrastructure improvements in Michigan.
Invited or not, you can bet that most of the 200 Republicans and six Democrats who voted to kill the infrastructure bill will crowd into ribbon cuttings and issue statements about the great improvements in their districts.