Baltimore bridge collapse puts spotlight on rising stars Moore, Buttigieg

Two of the Democratic Party’s rising stars have been thrust into the national spotlight this week after the bridge collapse in Baltimore.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, 45, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, 42 — both of whom considered likely candidates for higher office in the future — face a key test with their handling of the aftermath of the disaster, which took six lives and will require a bridge reconstruction and port reopening.

“It is a bright reflection of the talent we have within the Democratic Party and their ability to lead in times of crisis,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist. “Sometimes it’s a crisis that forces leaders to rise to the top and answer the call. I think this unfortunate tragedy has done just that.”

The two young politicians have found themselves center stage nationally after a cargo ship crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Interstate 695 in Baltimore on Tuesday. In addition to the lives lost, the tragedy has also opened up concerns about supply chain issues, commuting impacts and funding for rebuilding.

Buttigieg, for his part, is no stranger to the national spotlight, having run for president in 2020 when he was serving as the mayor of South Bend, Ind.

Moore, on the other hand, is newer to national politics. Before he was elected governor of Maryland in 2022, he worked as a nonprofit executive and author.

“This is just another layer of exposure for [Moore],” Seawright said. “I think he’s always demonstrated the ability to not only lead but lead in the light, and I think the world is seeing what a lot of people already know about Wes Moore.”

Buttigieg’s rise — from management consultant to Navy reservist in Afghanistan to Indiana mayor to Cabinet official — came after he outperformed many establishment Democrats in the primary in 2020 and instantly gained named recognition on the national level.

“He ran a very credible primary back in 2020,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist. “This is a popular guy who has always been looked at as a rising star, one to watch, and one to follow.”

“There is a reason why Biden chose him for this job,” he continued. “He is good at this.”

When Biden named Buttigieg as Transportation secretary, after the two ran against each other in the primary, it was considered an ideal opportunity for him to prove his chops amid questions about his future political prospects. The secretary has also been a surrogate for Biden’s reelection campaign and is known by politics-watchers for his ease with TV interviews and willingness to push back on Republican criticism against the administration.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is seen during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, March 27, 2024 to give an update on yesterday’s collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore caused by a crash from the container ship Dali. (Greg Nash)

Now, Buttigieg and Moore will be judged by how they handle the aftermath of the bridge collapse.

“Gov. Moore and Sec Buttigieg are essential parts of the future of the Democratic Party. The situation in Baltimore is tragic, and having both of them leading the response is an opportunity for them to show what excellence is under pressure. It’s an opportunity for them to shine at a time of need,” said Ivan Zapien, a former official for the Democratic National Committee.

Moore and Buttigieg are among several Democratic hopefuls that have been floated for 2028, including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D). All of the candidates have executive experience on the state or local level, including Buttigieg.

Strategists say this is not by chance.

“Voters are pretty fed up with Washington,” Reinish said. “I think that voters are craving executive experience.”

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The response to the bridge has led to images of Buttigieg in the Oval Office with President Biden and images of Moore day after day at the bridge site. Buttigieg joined the White House press briefing Wednesday, and Moore has been fielding questions from reporters in press conferences all week.

Both men are military veterans and represent key constituencies within the Democratic Party. Moore is not just Maryland’s first Black governor, but also the only Black governor currently serving in the U.S. Buttigieg was the first openly LGBTQ executive in Indiana and the first openly LGBTQ person confirmed to the U.S. Cabinet.

Buttigieg has faced this kind of pressure before. He has been spearheading the federal government’s response to Boeing after incidents with the company’s planes and has previously handled situations like the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment and stranded holiday travelers.

Rachel Palermo, who served on Buttigieg’s presidential campaign and is the former deputy communications director and associate counsel to Vice President Harris, said the secretary shines under pressure.

“Secretary Buttigieg is one of best examples of a leader who thoughtfully responds to crises and demonstrates grace under pressure, and that’s why he’s such a critical part of the Biden-Harris Administration,” she said. “Leaders like Secretary Buttigieg and Vice President Harris make me optimistic about the future of the Democratic Party — they embody bold and forward-thinking leadership, and improving the lives of everyday Americans is at the center of everything they do.”

For Moore, the tragedy is the first time many Americans outside of Maryland have been introduced to him. Moore has also served as a strong surrogate for Biden’s reelection bid, with a focus especially on Black voter outreach.

“So far in the near term, he is doing everything right,” said Len Foxwell, a Maryland-based Democratic strategist. “He has provided comfort and reassurance to the families of the victims. He has provided reassurance and strength to the people of Maryland who are shaken by this tragedy and he has made it abundantly clear that we are going to rebuild and we are going to rebuild better.”

“The next test is over the long term, how quickly and how efficiently is he going to be coordinating the rebuilding process,” Foxwell added.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore smiles during his State of the State address in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024.
Maryland Gov. Wes Moore smiles during his State of the State address in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore smiles during his State of the State address in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Gov. Moore testified Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in support of measures aimed at making housing more affordable and protecting renters, some of the governor’s top priorities this legislative session. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File)

While Buttigieg and Moore have received praise for their responses, the event has also led to partisan criticism.

“It’s clearly in no way based on fact, but social media, right-wing media, un-fact checked media, unhinged media on the right,” Reinish said. “It’s just been so immediate today and that’s what’s been so striking.”

Moore and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott (D), who is also Black, have faced an additional layer of racist criticism online. Scott responded to the online criticism on MSNBC earlier this week, saying that the attacks are rooted in racism.

“I know, and we know, and you know very well, that Black men, and young Black men in particular, have been the bogeyman for those who are racist and think that only straight, wealthy white men should have a say in anything,” Scott told host Joy Reid, adding that those who are playing a role in recovery are ignoring the conspiracy theories and working together.

Seawright said Moore, Buttigieg, Scott and others leading the recovery efforts are showing that the process is not about politics.

“There are always bad actors who are looking to spread division, and I think you see this playing out in real time,” he said. “These leaders are demonstrating that this is not about a political party, this is not about future political office potentials, this is about making sure in this moment that the country knows that their leaders are willing to put every other thing aside to do what’s in the best interest of the American people.”

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