With President-elect Joe Biden quickly filling out his Cabinet, fewer opportunities remain for him to make history by nominating the first openly LGBTQ person to a Cabinet-level role for Senate confirmation, which many see as a missed opportunity as Pete Buttigieg has rejected the idea of serving as director of White House Office of Management & Budget and secretary of Veterans Affairs, according to Democratic insiders.
Some LGBTQ leaders are quietly expressing frustration that the movement hasn’t pushed more aggressively for representation in Biden’s Cabinet, especially when Black and Latino advocates have been vocal and have had their efforts pay off with prominent appointments. As of now, none of Biden’s major appointees — Cabinet or otherwise — have been out members of the LGBTQ community.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg — widely assumed to be a top contender for a Cabinet post in the Biden administration — has reportedly turned down two prominent roles.
In talks with the Biden transition team, one Democratic insider said the idea of Buttigieg becoming White House OMB director came up, but he rejected it and said he wanted a “real Cabinet” position, not a “staff-level” job. Buttigieg wasn’t formally offered the role because the idea was more a discussion with senior members of the transition team, the insider said.
Additionally, Buttigieg in separate talks on Monday signaled to Annise Parker, CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, that he won’t pursue the position of secretary of Veterans Affairs, according to two senior Democratic sources, despite media reports he was in consideration for the job.
Buttigieg didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor did his political action committee, Win the Era.
Biden has never explicitly made a promise to appoint an openly LGBTQ Cabinet member, notably declining to make that commitment when asked during the presidential campaign in an interview with the Philadelphia Gay News. In an interview last week with CNN, Biden generally recognized the importance of including marginalized communities in his administration, including LGBTQ people.
“Every advocacy group out there is pushing for more and more and more of what they want. That’s their job,” Biden said. “My job is to keep my commitment, to make the decisions. And when it’s all over, people will take a look and say, I promise you, you’ll see the most diverse Cabinet, representative of all folks, Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ, across the board.”
But if Biden declines to nominate an openly LGBTQ person to his Cabinet for Senate confirmation, he’ll miss an opportunity to make history and grant prominent visibility to a community that has a history of talented leaders being sidelined because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
It would also give Richard Grenell — who as acting director of national intelligence in the Trump administration became the first openly gay Cabinet member in U.S. history — a reason to celebrate: Trump would have achieved a first for the LGBTQ community that Biden didn’t even attempt. (Grenell never sought or obtained confirmation for the DNI role, but did get Senate approval for his concurrent role as U.S. ambassador to Germany.)
Jamal Brown, a spokesperson for the Biden transition team, pointed out Biden has achieved many firsts for other communities in response to the simmering discontent over no LGBTQ appointees.
“President-elect Biden is working to build an administration that looks like America, starting with the first woman of South Asian descent and first Black woman to be Vice President-elect, as well as a slate of historic nominees and appointees, to date,” Brown said. “Over the coming weeks, our team will continue to build upon President-elect Biden’s legacy of advancing LGBTQ+ equality by shaping a government that reflects the breadth and diversity of our nation.”
Many observers thought Buttigieg, who made history as a gay presidential candidate in the Democratic primary, would be a shoo-in for a Cabinet role. After all, Buttigieg gave Biden a boost in the primary by dropping out after the South Carolina contest and endorsing his fellow moderate, then campaigned hard for Biden in the weeks leading up to the general election.
But finding the right role for Buttigieg — who’s talented, but lacks government experience other than serving as mayor of the small city of South Bend, Ind. — isn’t easy.
The multilingual Buttigieg emerged as a possible pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, as many media outlets reported. It’s a not a Cabinet position, but is a prominent role and would have burnished Buttigieg’s foreign policy credentials for a subsequent run for public office.
But with Biden promising to conduct foreign policy with seasoned professionals, in contrast to the Trump administration’s reliance on dilettantes like Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the job ended up going to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who as a Foreign Service officer had multiple postings in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia and served as assistant secretary of state for African Affairs in the Obama administration.
As noted, both the idea of director of OMB and secretary of VA have come up in talks with Buttigieg, but he rejected them, according to knowledgable sources. The nod for OMB ended up going to Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, although she may face a difficult Senate confirmation fight.
It should be noted the VA has a long history and reputation for institutional problems in delivering care to veterans. Anyone running the VA would face criticism for its inefficiencies and the job is widely considered more appropriate for an elder statesman as opposed to a young politician eager to make another run for office.