WASHNGTON – Democrats rallied around Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Friday as a model for paid parental leave amid Republican attacks aimed at his taking time off with his husband and two newborns.
The White House and congressional Democrats, calling some of the criticism homophobic, sought to use the moment to push for paid time off for new parents – among the ideas the party is seeking to include in a multitrillion-dollar budget package.
The Transportation Department never announced that Buttigieg would be taking leave, and he has not commented personally. But Buttigieg himself appeared to confirm on Twitter last week that he had been on leave and had returned to work. In a statement, his office said Friday that Buttigieg’s experience as a dad had given him a new perspective to lend to his advocacy for parental leave.
“The Secretary feels fortunate and grateful to be able to take time to focus on his responsibilities as a father, and believes all American parents deserve the same,” the statement said.
It was an item Thursday in a Politico newsletter that described Buttigieg as “MIA” that launched a tirade of criticism from the right. While delivering a monologue about supply chain issues, Fox News host Tucker Carlson mocked Buttigieg for going on paternity leave.
“Pete Buttigieg has been on leave from his job since August after adopting a child. Paternity leave, they call it, trying to figure out how to breastfeed. No word on how that went,” Carlson said.
His comments drew criticism, with many accusing him of homophobia. Elliot Imse, a spokesman for the Victory Fund, which advocates for LGBTQ people in public service, said the breastfeeding line was simply an attack on Buttigieg “for being a gay dad.”
“If he wanted to make an argument about taking paternity leave, he could have done that without throwing in a homophobic trope,” Imse said.
The United States is a global outlier on leave for new parents. Democrats are proposing a 12-week guarantee in the budget package and touted the need for time off for workers who become parents in their defense of Buttigieg. White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that he is a role model “on the importance of paid leave for new parents.”
Even before he was sworn in as the first gay Cabinet member confirmed by the Senate during the Biden administration’s first weeks, Buttigieg has been a prominent member of the administration, regularly promoting the White House’s agenda on cable news and social media. But his pace of public comments slackened after announcing he and Chasten Buttigieg had children.
The day after the couple’s announcement, it was Deputy Transportation Secretary Polly Trottenberg who led a trip to Seattle touting investments that would flow from the infrastructure bill. Trottenberg’s comments have also been more prominent in announcements from the department in recent weeks.
A Transportation Department spokesman said Friday that Buttigieg was largely offline for the first four weeks of leave, “except for major agency decisions and matters that could not be delegated,” and then began taking on more work.
The Office of Personnel and Management didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday, but told Politico that while Cabinet secretaries do not have leave policies like other federal employees, such time can be granted by the president.
In recent days, Buttigieg appears to have resumed much of his role, returning to television to talk about supply chain problems. On Thursday, the department announced he would travel to Glasgow for the U.N. Climate Change Conference.
After Buttigieg appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Oct. 7, he retweeted a message from paid leave advocate Dawn Huckelbridge welcoming him back to work.
“It’s been wonderful,” Buttigieg said during that appearance. “It’s everything people tell you to expect and more. I think the biggest thing that has surprised me is just how much joy there is, even sometimes in the hard parts. Don’t get me wrong – it’s the most demanding thing I think I’ve ever done, that Chasten and I have ever taken on, but it’s just amazing.”
Fox News did not respond to a request for comment on Carlson’s criticism of Buttigieg. The company offers new parents six weeks of paternity leave, a benefit some of its stars have lauded in the past. In March, for example, “Fox & Friends” co-host Todd Piro took six weeks of paternity leave after welcoming his daughter.
“I cannot thank Fox enough for providing all fathers who work here with such a generous paternity leave,” Piro wrote in an op-ed. “This experience has changed me in a profound way and in ways I won’t fully comprehend until my daughter is older. But for now – that smile coming from the crib each morning, immediately followed by morning snuggles – is what I will cherish the most.”
After welcoming his third child in April this year, Fox News host Jesse Watters said he supports paid paternity leave.
“Now I am pro-paternity. I used to mock people for taking paternity, I used to think it was a big ruse, but now, you know, I wish I could take six weeks,” Watters said.
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas also criticized Buttigieg’s leave, tweeting that he was “absent during a transportation crisis that is hurting working-class Americans.” He later doubled down on his criticism of the secretary, telling Watters that Buttigieg “couldn’t organize a one car funeral – he’s not going to organize our ports, railroads, highways, and airports.”
A spokesman for Cotton didn’t respond to a Washington Post request on Cotton’s position on parental leave. In 2019, he criticized the D.C. pizza chain &pizza on the Senate floor for not providing “paid parental leave for all employees.” The pizza chain’s management, he said, thinks “babies are ‘bad for business.'”
Rep. Katherine Clark, D-N.Y., said Buttigieg “is a new parent no different than the millions of other Americans who also deserve the right to care for their loved ones during birth, sickness and old age.” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh tweeted “Everyone should have access to paid parental leave, period.”