By Jarrett Renshaw and David Shepardson
WILMINGTON, Del., Dec 15 (Reuters) - President-elect Joe Biden announced Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday as his nominee to lead the U.S. Transportation Department, making him the first of Biden's Democratic rivals for the presidency to land a role in his Cabinet.
The appointment of Buttigieg, 38, is another step in a meteoric political rise for the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who showed surprising strength as a presidential candidate. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he would run a sprawling federal agency that oversees the nation's airlines, highways and transit systems.
Buttigieg would also make history as the first openly LGBTQ Cabinet secretary to be approved by the Senate.
"I am nominating him for Secretary of Transportation because this position stands at the nexus of so many of the interlocking challenges and opportunities ahead of us," Biden said in a statement. "Jobs, infrastructure, equity, and climate all come together at the DOT, the site of some of our most ambitious plans to build back better."
Buttigieg had been rumored for several different spots in Biden's administration. He was surprisingly competitive during the Democratic Party presidential race, winning the first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa, showing formidable fundraising might and enjoying massive popularity on social media.
Once Biden took control of the race after winning the South Carolina primary in February, Buttigieg quickly dropped out and endorsed him, helping Biden consolidate the support of the moderate, establishment wing of the party. He became a valued Biden supporter on television in the election's final weeks.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest advocacy group for the LGBTQ community, praised the nomination, saying Buttigieg "was open and honest" about his identity and gave a voice to the community.
"His voice as a champion for the LGBTQ community in the Cabinet room will help President-elect Biden build back our nation better, stronger and more equal than before," Alphonso David, the group's president, said in a statement.
Despite being viewed as a rising star within the party, Buttigieg's potential nomination to a Cabinet post has been opposed by a number of progressive groups and Black leaders who have criticized his record on civil rights.
During the Democratic contest, Buttigieg faced attacks from African-American activists, who argued he did not do enough as mayor to battle systemic racism in South Bend and help Black residents share in the city's economic revitalization. He also was criticized over the shooting death of a Black man by a white police officer in South Bend, as well as questions over diversity on the city's police force.
The top transportation job offers him a chance to confront the nation's history of plowing highways through disadvantaged neighborhoods, and what advocates say are the lasting social, economic and environmental consequences of doing so.
At 78, Biden will be the oldest person to assume the presidency in U.S. history, leading to speculation that he may only serve one term. While Kamala Harris, Biden's vice president, could be the leading contender to succeed him, Buttigieg's transportation post will allow him to travel to communities across the country and remain in the public eye - something that could buttress a future presidential run.
EMPHASIS ON LOYALTY
Biden has appeared largely unconcerned by liberal complaints about appointments to his administration, preferring to reward those who demonstrated loyalty to his campaign when it was struggling to build support.
A U.S. Navy veteran who served as a reservist in Afghanistan, Buttigieg had also been considered to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. That slot went to former Obama White House aide Denis McDonough.
Buttigieg's nomination is in line with Biden's stated commitment to diversity in the Cabinet.
U.S. Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico has emerged as Biden's leading choice to head the Interior Department, according to three sources familiar with the decision process, a selection, that if confirmed by the Senate, would make her the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.
At the Transportation Department, Buttigieg may be charged with overseeing much of Biden's plan to dramatically boost infrastructure spending, including building 550,000 electric-vehicle charging stations and boosting spending on high-speed rail and other green projects, and persuading Congress to find a way to pay for new spending.
Since 2008, Congress has transferred about $141 billion in general revenues to the Highway Trust Fund. To maintain existing spending levels, Congress will need to find $107 billion over five years, government auditors say.
Buttigieg would face challenges on aviation, including plans in Congress to overhaul how the Federal Aviation Administration certifies new airplanes following two fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes that led to the plane's grounding for 20 months.
He would also have to decide how to oversee self-driving cars and driver assistance systems like Tesla Inc's autopilot that have come under scrutiny following fatal crashes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a Transportation Department agency, has not had a Senate-confirmed administrator since January 2017. (Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw in Wilmington and David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Howard Goller and Peter Cooney)