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SXSW 2021: Pete Buttigieg returns to event that sparked presidential run

Ryan Autullo
Austin American-Statesman

Pete Buttigieg returned to South by Southwest on Thursday to deliver a keynote speech on his new role as U.S. transportation secretary and was immediately reminded of the last time he appeared at the festival.

It was 2019 — the most recent SXSW before last year's event was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic — when an audience getting revved up for the upcoming U.S. presidential election got their first glimpse of the little-known Midwest wunderkind.

Nearing the end of his second term as mayor of South Bend, Ind., Buttigieg used an appearance on a CNN town hall to emerge as a viable contender for the Democratic nomination to challenge President Donald Trump. At just 37, he carved out a spot in the crowded field as an alternative to long-timers Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.

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A month later and riding the momentum of his SXSW star turn, Buttigieg launched his presidential campaign. The rest of the country was introduced to "Mayor Pete," the openly gay, Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar who served seven months in Afghanistan as a lieutenant with the U.S. Navy Reserve.

"You can make a strong case that 'Mayor Pete' emerged as the most successful startup at the 2019 event," Hugh Forrest, who heads SXSW's programming, said by way of introducing Buttigieg to a virtual audience.

No longer Mayor Pete or presidential-hopeful Pete, Buttigieg is now six weeks into charting the nation's path forward in transportation. Sworn in Feb. 3 as the nation's transportation secretary, he said his priorities include determining which aging bridges to repair first and connecting cities through high-speed rail systems to reduce gas emissions and lower the number of vehicles on the road.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg

Fresh off of Congress approving a $1.9 trillion stimulus package this month, attention in Washington has shifted to Buttigieg and the $2 trillion in transportation investments Biden laid the groundwork for during his presidential campaign. The money would go toward investments to shift to cleaner energy through the addition of half a million charging stations for electric vehicles, supporting public transit, and repairing roads and bridges.

"I know this is probably heresy in Texas," Buttigieg said. "But I'll add that there are some things that may need to be reduced, sometimes roads need to be widened, sometimes roads need to go on a diet. ... Sometimes we do need to add a road or widen one, just as often, I think we need to subtract."

Passage of the legislation could benefit Austin, which has yet to receive a commitment from the U.S. government to help foot the bill for the $7.1 billion transportation investment that voters approved in November known as Project Connect. The headliner of that project is a high-speed rail system with airport access that city voters had long opposed, but supported this time amid increases in population and drive times.

If the funds become available, Buttigieg can expect to hear from Mayor Steve Adler, who hosted a campaign fundraiser in Austin for Buttigieg in 2019. In his opening remarks Thursday, Buttigieg gave a shoutout to Adler and circled back to him when answering a question about a 2016 trip to Europe he took with Adler and others to study transportation services in Norway, Amsterdam, Denmark and The Netherlands.

The two are so close, in fact, that there was chatter after Buttigieg accepted the transportation position that Adler would join him in Washington. That never materialized, although Adler took the speculation as an opportunity to publicly request Buttigieg's support for Project Connect. 

"I do hope that as secretary, Buttigieg will be able to help us launch and establish Project Connect and as mayor, I'll be lobbying for that," Adler told the American-Statesman in December.