In Official Washington, Chasten Buttigieg is a stranger in a (very) strange land
By Ellen McCarthy,
Michael Blackshire The Washington Post
Chasten Buttigieg put on a few pounds during quarantine. So in April, with pandemic restrictions easing and two doses of vaccine safely in his arm, he set about looking for a gym to join in the city where he had relocated after his husband, Pete, became the secretary of transportation.
He found one on Capitol Hill that seemed nice enough, he says, until one of the gym’s personal trainers approached him and explained that he also worked as a lobbyist and that his boss would be upset if he didn’t take the opportunity to ask Chasten to pass along some information to the Secretary.
“It was like, ‘Well, can’t go here. Can’t go to the lobbyist gym,’ ” Chasten recalls during a recent interview, rolling his eyes beneath his signature owl-framed glasses.
He’d been warned. Before the Buttigiegs moved to Washington a friend gave them a critical piece of advice about life in the Capitol: “Work is play and play is work.”
Six months in, the former first man of South Bend, Ind., can’t believe how true it is. “Like, anytime you think you’re just relaxing, you’re working,” he says. “Especially on the Hill. Cocktails, dinners, drinks. Everyone says, ‘No work tonight.’ Then two minutes go by and they’re talking about a pipeline, you know, or a bill or a package.”
The secretary’s husband isn’t particularly interested in talking pipelines and packages all night. He wants to dish about the HBO comedy “Hacks.” Alas, he seldom sees an opening.
Such is life in Washington for Chasten, who finds himself in the deep end of an education in what it means to be the husband of a powerful political figure in a town of grippers, grinners and wonks.
Chasten, 32, was the breakout star of Pete’s 2020 presidential campaign. The middle-school drama teacher was a novelty. Not just because he was the man married to an openly gay presidential candidate, but because he was young, a savvy and self-effacing user of social media, enthusiastic about pop culture in a way that didn’t feel strained or strategic.
In Washington, Chasten is more of a fish-out-of-water than he was on the campaign. He remains bewildered by many of Washington’s social mores.
Example: The Buttigieges recently received a dinner invitation that came with two notes on what to expect: “Super casual. No work.” The host even mentioned that there’d be bike parking, presumably because Pete Buttigieg often cycles to work.
Chasten wavered, having rarely seen his definition of “casual” on display at social events in D.C., but eventually pulled on chinos and a polo shirt. “I was like, ‘I swear to God, if we show up and everyone’s in suits and dresses. . . ,” he says. “And we showed up and everyone was in suits and dresses.”
On a Friday morning in June, Chasten sits at a window-side table at Canopy at the Wharf, entertaining his visiting mother-in-law over breakfast until Pete could get out of work. It’s the start of D.C.’s highly celebratory Pride weekend, but he’s not enmeshed enough with the city’s nongovernment circles to take part. (“Oh, is there a parade this weekend?” he replies when asked about his Pride plans.)
“It’s very hard to make a friend when everybody wants something from your husband,” he says. “Or they’re expecting him to do something. It makes interactions feel inauthentic a lot. You just kind of have to always have your guard up.”
It’s a familiar kind of whiplash for newcomers, especially those trailing a spouse rather than chasing a dream.
“It has definitely been an adjustment for him,” says Eddie Neve, a friend since college at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “When I moved to New York I always told him that in New York everyone is trying to go somewhere and achieve something. And I feel like D.C. is the same way. But he’s such a communal person. When people come up to him, there may be something there beyond that they just want to grab coffee. He’s kind of had to change his thinking a little bit and anticipate that.”
While Pete seems to know exactly what he’s doing here, Chasten is less certain. He remains somewhat stranded on an elevated, ill-defined pedestal on the dais of Official Washington. He is paid nothing, has no title and feels alternately in-demand and ineffectual.
But he’s held tight to a personal refrain: “What you’re doing is important.”
Even when what you’re doing isn’t exactly clear.
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Chasten holds Pete’s mother’s Bible as Vice President Kamala Harris swears Pete in as transportation secretary, back in February.
“We’re going to take those out the maximum,” Chasten says, pulling at the thigh area of a new pair of suit pants two weeks later as he turns to examine himself in a three-way mirror at a Nordstrom’s in Arlington.
He bought the grayish-green suit on winter clearance, but never bothered to have it tailored. Now the tailor has bad news. The slim-cut pants can’t be made much wider.
“Well, hopefully I get smaller,” Chasten quips. “I’ll do my best not to sit down.”
He never owned a suit until he started dating Pete. Never needed one. Then Pete ran for president, so Chasten spent a year living in them.
Love is the reason Chasten Buttigieg is willing to do all of this — move to a new city, leave his friends and family, give up his own career and privacy.
Pete Buttigieg, who declined to be interviewed for this story, seems a natural fit with Official Washington’s coterie of overachievers who never take a break. His gig in the Biden Cabinet seems to be going great; on Friday, Politico gushed that Pete had “redefined” transportation secretary as a premier posting
, declaring him the winner of the recent infrastructure-bill drama on Capitol Hill.
The 39-year-old Harvard grad, former McKinsey consultant and Navy reservist has so much excess ambition that, in addition running the U.S. Department of Transportation, he is also training to compete in a Half Ironman triathlon this fall. He wakes for a 6 a.m. swim session most weekday mornings and stacks his weekends with long runs, bike rides and workshops on open-water swimming.
One day, Chasten was riding a bike alongside Pete on a 10-mile run, for moral support. Afterward, while Pete paced in circles catching his breath, a young man approached the couple with a smartphone and questioned the secretary about his position on China. Pete handled the ambush with impressive equanimity, according to his husband, warding off the man with a book recommendation.
Chasten is a drama kid at heart, but Washington is a different kind of theater. The show never stops, and you don’t always know when you’re onstage — and on whose terms. “When your life becomes the center for other people’s criticisms and commentary all the time, why stay?” he says.
“It’s why I love him very much,” he continues, talking about Pete. “He’s so committed to the job. And you can tell he’s happy and can tell he cares, but sometimes it’s like, ‘Well, it feels like you’re built for this, it feels like you can handle it.’ Sometimes I’m like, ‘I’m done. I’m taking a break. I can’t be everything for everybody all the time.’ ”
After the Nordstrom’s stop, Chasten faced the good and bad of his new reality while trying to return some new purchases at Banana Republic: One star-struck salesperson wanted a photo with him, and another wouldn’t credit his account without a receipt. Fearing the idea of people gossiping that Pete Buttigieg’s husband is a difficult customer, he chose not to press his case. Another time, while walking the dogs, his stomach dropped when he caught a glimpse of his reflection at a coffee shop. “My hair was sticking straight up on the side,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. I’m going to be in Playbook for looking like an idiot.’ ” (Chasten has been name-checked several times in Playbook — the Politico newsletter where the city’s political class stares at its own reflection — but never for “looking like an idiot.”)
He’s found a few places in the city where he feels at least somewhat comfortable. He loves ducking out to Eastern Market for the quiches, bacon and croissants — the Buttigieges’ favorite weekend brunch. Kramers, in Dupont Circle, has become a haven. And while friends often invite them to fancy restaurants, the couple’s favorite spot so far is Mr. Henry’s, the longtime Capitol Hill saloon, where they can order beers and burgers.
“I see the charm in it,” Chasten says of D.C. “I know there are people who are very in love with the city.”
It’s a short stroll from charmed to sticker-shocked, and one of the couple’s favorite Washington pastimes is playing Zillow Price Is Right, where they try to guess the out-of-reach appraisal values of homes they admire and then look up the actual estimate online.
The Buttigieges themselves moved into an 800-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment near Eastern Market. “We couldn’t afford the one-bedroom-plus-den,” Chasten says. They chose the high-end building because of its location and the security it offered — the couple has faced threats and even a break-in back in South Bend — but the rent for one-bedrooms starts at $4,500 per month. (It was less when the Buttigieges signed a lease last winter.)
“We’re doing fine for ourselves, and [yet] the city is almost unaffordable,” he added, while driving their Subaru Outback up I-395. “Which tells you how extremely unaffordable it is for many people.” (The transportation secretary’s salary is $221,400.)
The couple sold their home in South Bend earlier this year, knowing they couldn’t keep up the old Victorian from afar. But they didn’t leave the Midwest behind entirely, purchasing a home on Lake Michigan, in Traverse City, Mich., where Chasten grew up and where his parents still live. He likes to escape there, when he can, to hang drywall with his dad and surround himself with old friends — “people who remind me of, like, me
“His ambition is just living his life — in a very wonderful way. I don’t know many people like that,” says Charlotte Clymer, a writer and activist who became friends with Chasten during the presidential campaign. “He’s just himself. He doesn’t try to mold himself into what he thinks people want. It’s not even that he resists it. But he says the best person he can be is himself.”
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Chasten poses for a portrait in June.
“I need a job,” Chasten says flatly.
Namely, he wants a job that will pose no risk to his husband’s career while also allowing him to remain true to his passions and personality. Stepping away from teaching middle-school drama has been one of his biggest sacrifices, says Eddie Neve, Chasten’s friend since college. “He loves to play, he loves theater and improv,” Neve says. “Bringing that to younger kids was an outlet for him.”
He feels he can’t go back — at least now, and not at the K-12 level. How could he be honest and present in the work of teaching young people, he wonders, knowing that a disgruntled parent could make news by airing their grievances?
“Teaching is a hard job, and it requires you to make difficult decisions. You need a lot of individuality in the role.” he says. “You need a lot of trust. Trust from parents, trust from the students. And when you are high-profile person, there are many vulnerabilities.” He’s considered taking a page from Jill Biden and trying to get a job teaching college, which might be less fraught.
In between Pete’s presidential campaign and his Cabinet appointment, Chasten did find work that allowed him to be vulnerable on his own terms. In the attic of their house in South Bend, he wrote a memoir that would be titled, “I Have Something to Tell You,” which he’s now adapting for adolescent readers.
“When reporters would ask me questions like ‘Did you ever imagine this is where you’d end up?’ and ‘What prepared you for this?’ part of me felt like they were saying, ‘People like you don’t really belong here,’ ” he writes in the book.
And then, several paragraphs later: “I believed so strongly in my husband and our marriage that I got to the point where I was forced to start believing in myself, too.”
The Buttigieges are also preparing to begin work on an important job, together: raising a child.
They’ve been trying to adopt for a year now, going through home-studies and parenting workshops, writing up descriptions of their family values and ideal weekends. They’re are on lists that would allow them to receive a baby who’s been abandoned or surrendered at very little notice, and through lengthier processes that would allow a prospective mother to choose them in advance (though she wouldn’t know their identities). They’ve gotten close enough, on multiple occasions, to shop for baby gear and discuss names.
One afternoon, two weeks ago, Chasten got a call about a birth mother who was in labor and wanted to place her baby for adoption. The couple scrambled to figure out how to clear their schedules, track down an infant car seat and travel to the state where she was delivering the baby. A few hours later he got another call. The mother had changed her mind.
“It’s a really weird cycle of anger and frustration and hope,” says Chasten. “You think it’s finally happening and you get so excited, and then it’s gone.” He thinks, sometimes, about what they’ll tell their future child: “We tried so hard for you, we waited so long for you.” He fantasizes about taking a little one to Michigan, where they could romp through the woods and cast fishing lines with Grandpa.
After the mall, Chasten is thinking about Pete. It’s their third wedding anniversary. During a quick Target stop he spots a hot pink gift bag with a close-up of a dog that resembles Buddy, their one-eyed puggle. It reads, “You’re Pug-tastic.”
“OMG,” Chasten says. “That’s it, that’s the one.” He slips it into a wobbly-wheeled cart, confident it will make Pete smile. “This is great.”
Pete has something planned for the night, though he’s keeping the details a surprise. The secretary did give Chasten one hint: “Don’t wear anything too dressy.”
So he won’t. Chasten Buttigieg knows there’s one Washington insider who won’t lead him astray.