Pete Buttigieg Is Geeking Out on Infrastructure — and Being a New Dad and Settling Into D.C. It's Contagious.

"It's a uniquely exciting thing to be working on, and it's a uniquely exciting time to be working on," the secretary of transportation tells PEOPLE

Pete Buttigieg spends most — if not all — of his work day talking about planes, trains, automobiles, you name it.

To hear him tell it, he wouldn't have it any other way.

"This is the topic I've always cared about. I mean, from the policy work we did when I was mayor [in Indiana], all the way back through, you know, childhood fascinations," Buttigieg excitedly tells PEOPLE about his role as secretary of transportation in a recent chat after his town hall at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, last week.

While there he took questions from the crowd on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment bill passed last year. He addressed the environment, finding jobs for oil and gas workers and electric cars. (Buttigieg admits that with fatherhood, he has succumbed to buying a minivan — albeit an electric hybrid — with husband Chasten.)

It's clear that Buttigieg, a 40-year-old Navy Reserve vet, former corporate consultant and history-making mayor and presidential candidate, is passionate about his newest role, in which he's served since February 2021. He seemingly wants to share that passion with everyone who crosses his path.

"It's a uniquely exciting thing to be working on, and it's a uniquely exciting time to be working on. I'm the 19th secretary of transportation and I don't think there's ever been a better time to have this job," he says. "So yeah, hopefully that comes through in my work when I'm talking to folks because I do think there's a contagious energy to it. Maybe it's a little nerdy, but some of the stuff we're working on is just so important and so powerful, and it can be really fun, too."

Buttigieg likes to say that "transportation should connect, never divide" and, he says, by putting a human touch on what could otherwise be a dry and tedious subject he can garner more interest.

"Good transportation projects link people to opportunity, link people to loved ones, link people to education. But there is unfortunately also always a risk that a piece of transportation infrastructure can get in the way," says Buttigieg, referring to how some policies have historically created boundaries between neighborhoods of differing social economic backgrounds.

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg. Win McNamee/Getty

Another story Buttigieg likes to tell is one that emphasizes the importance of access to transportation for all — and it's one he can relate to more now that he is a father himself.

The story is about a mother "who said that she didn't feel like she was the parent she wanted to be because of the commute that stood between her and work. So she was advocating for commuter rail to better connect her neighborhood to her workplace. And we think about in those terms, especially now that I'm a parent, the idea that even the ability to be a good parent and something as important and as intimate as that is shaped by your transportation opportunities," Buttigieg says. "It really reminds me why it matters to do this work well."

Division and parenting also came up in Buttigieg's conversation with when PEOPLE when looking at the recent raft of LGBTQ restrictions being proposed or enacted around the country, from a Florida bill to forbid discussions of sexual orientation and gender in younger classes to a Texas directive to investigate parents who seek certain kinds of medical care for their transgender children.

Buttigieg, the first openly gay Cabinet member in U.S. history, is also concerned. "Unfortunately, we've seen a pattern of politicians targeting vulnerable people for political gain," he says. (The measures are overwhelmingly backed by Republicans.) "And I think that's what's happening here. In Texas, what's especially troubling is turning against parents, actually threatening parents who support their kids. When parental support is one of the biggest things that stands between vulnerable, queer youth and the risk of suicide."

"I think it's coming from some political figures who don't have answers to the issues of the day. They haven't put forward a plan on climate, they haven't put forward a plan on inflation," Buttigieg argues. "And so, I think they'd rather be picking these cultural fights … So they're going to keep focusing on which books to ban, and I'm focused on which bridges to build."

Does Buttigieg, a dad to twins Gus and Penelope, worry that his kids will have to grow up in an anti-LGBTQ culture? How does he plan to discuss this with them when they are old enough?

"My hope is that my kids can go to school in an environment where they know they belong," he says, "and they understand that they're the most important thing about their family, that it's a loving stable family, which is what it takes for any kid to be set up for success."

Pete Buttigieg and Chasten Glezman
Pete (left) and Chasten Buttigieg. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty

Since his twins are still a little young for social issues, Buttigieg says what they do enjoy is going on walks around their home in Washington, D.C., where the family relocated from South Bend, Indiana, after the 2020 election.

"They're always more relaxed when they're in that stroller … something about the vibrations," Buttigieg says of his children. "A little bit in the future, I'm excited about exposing them to music and performances. Chasten and I took them to the Christmas tree lighting at the White House. That was a fun performance, although that was a little much for them."

"They definitely respond to lights, to music," he says.

Which may pose a challenge: "Unfortunately, I can tell we're already going to have to be careful about screen time, especially our son goes right to the screen anytime there's one on," he says. "But we just love being around them and having them in our lives. And it's changed everything."

Buttigieg says he and his husband simply enjoy giggling with — and at — the twins and look forward to bedtime stories, especially since there are so many for kids that involve, yes, transport.

"It is amazing how many books are in some way transportation themed," he says, then cracks, "Maybe I'm more attuned to that. Trains and planes and cars. Especially trains."

The family is finding their groove in their new home in D.C. So are their dogs, two rescues who moved with them from South Bend.

"I think they've gotten used to their new place in the family," Buttigieg says. "We love our dogs, and they seem to do well in D.C., too. Lots of sounds and smells."

Pete and Chasten Buttigieg Reveal Their Twins' Names with First Family Photo: 'Beyond Thankful'
Chasten (left) and Pete Buttigieg and their kids. Pete Buttigieg/Twitter

Balancing a demanding job and travel, new babies under the roof and still making time for a relationship is as much a struggle for Buttigieg as anyone else.

"Any time that doesn't belong to work has pretty much been devoured by family," he says. "Well in the first weeks, it first felt like any time that didn't belong to work belonged to childcare. But I think now we're learning to weave family life into a little bit of a social life. I'm looking forward to that."

So how does Buttigieg — who campaigned as unflappable and a bit implacable, at least when it came to getting things done — keep sane in D.C., in the heart of the country's sprawling government? How does he blow off steam and protect himself and his family?

"The most important thing probably is Chasten. My husband is supportive, and we can vent to one another after a long day," Buttigieg says. "Physical exercise is extremely important to me. Although I have to say my exercise habits took a nosedive when the kids were born. I was in the best shape in my life last year. I was training for a half Ironman [triathlon]."

Then life interrupted, as it likes to do.

"About a month before the race was when the kids arrived and everything changed. So I'm just now starting to get back into it," Buttigieg says. "But another thing that I'll say for Washington is it's a great city for running and biking, even swimming … And so, as we've become a little more settled into a neighborhood, even though it'll probably never really be home in a deep sense, I've come to really appreciate a lot of things about the human texture of the place."

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