When I think about where I’ll be when I turn 29 years old, my vision includes some kind of gainful employment and maybe a dog. But for Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the year he turned 29 also happened to be the year he became the youngest mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city known for its lengthy period of decline after Studebaker shut down its auto plant in the 1960s. Now, at age 37, Buttigieg (pronounced boot-edge-edge) is aiming for another lofty goal: becoming the 2020 Democratic nominee for President of the United States.
Buttigieg, known affectionately by his constituents as Mayor Pete, served as Mayor of South Bend for two four-year terms. And who is Mayor Pete? Buttigieg’s resume is almost comically overstuffed and his background is extremely unique. Pete, the son of a first-generation immigrant from Malta, is a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes Scholar, and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He speaks seven languages, was the first openly gay mayor elected in Indiana, and is the youngest mayor in the country of a city with over 100,000 residents. Buttigieg cannot be slotted into any of the familiar political narratives, and thus his candidacy is unlike any other.
Both intentionally and inherently, Buttigieg resists the temptation to fill a certain niche. In this way, he has definitively differentiated himself from what could end up being fifteen or twenty other candidates in the Democratic primaries. And no, he isn’t running on any one facet of his identity. He’s running as himself. He’s running as Mayor Pete.
As unique as he is, his authenticity and fresh perspective in the 2020 election cycle might remind us of another groundbreaking race: Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Both young, relatively “inexperienced” politicians bursting onto the scene after years of the Democratic machine boasting their potential, Buttigieg and Obama are both driven by a belief in the power of pure human empathy to do good when used in the name of government.
With backgrounds that defy stereotypes, bright-eyed and perhaps idyllic visions for the future of our country, and an almost uncanny mastery of practically every issue and policy, the comparison between the two men seems almost a given. And just as pundits endlessly discussed whether the country was ready for a Black president, the prospect of electing our nation’s first gay president is often, frustratingly enough, the focus of discussions about Buttigieg’s candidacy.
I would argue that this question isn’t even worth our time. According to the most recent Gallup data, two in three Americans supported gay marriage in 2018, a record high indicating change in the face of increasing polarization. Not only is gay marriage significantly less of a controversial subject than it was even three years ago, when Buttigieg came out midway through his campaign for reelection (in the same state where Governor Mike Pence was simultaneously pushing his bigoted Religious Freedom Restoration Act), but even then Mayor Pete won reelection with a whopping 80 percent of the vote. If he can garner such widespread support in his substantially conservative small town, who’s to say he couldn’t do the same in many more conservative small towns across the country?
When Buttigieg first took office in 2012, the population of South Bend had been in steady decline since the 1960s—dropping by more than 30,000 people. The blue-collar, rust belt city had been hemorrhaging jobs and residents for half a century, leaving large swathes of neighborhoods abandoned and decaying.
At the start of his first term, Mayor Pete proposed an ambitious plan to demolish or repair 1,000 homes in 1,000 days. By September 2015, a thousand days in, the city had taken action on 1,122 properties. Roughly 60 percent were demolished and 40 percent were repaired, according to the city, and the program continues to this day.
Of course, I would be remiss not to point out the pressing issue of gentrification inherent to Buttigeig’s revamping of the city’s previously derelict downtown. South Bend’s African American residents make up 27 percent of the population and yet face financial struggles at a rate much higher than the national average. Enforcing steep fines was one of the main strategies the city used to incentivize homeowners to make repairs, which disproportionately penalized low-income homeowners, particularly in South Bend’s predominantly African American neighborhoods.
But when community leader Stacy Odom came to Mayor Pete with these concerns asking for a $300,000 grant to help mitigate the cost of home repairs and allow low-income homeowners to keep their houses, Buttigieg countered with a $650,000 grant, more than doubling her request. He also implemented $2 million programs focused on home repairs and affordable housing for South Bend residents as of 2018.
His housing plan is only one example of the bold, innovative, and community-based ideas the young mayor has up his sleeve. In an already-crowded Democratic primary field filled with big names like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete is using one of his critics’ main refrains—that he’s too young and inexperienced to be President—as a means of standing out in the crowd.
In his widely-viewed CNN town hall on March 10, Buttigieg explained that being a mayor may be the “best preparation” a presidential candidate can have. “It’s more traditional to maybe come from Congress, to have a background in Washington, but I would also argue that we would be well served if Washington started to look more like our best-run cities and towns rather than the other way around,” he said.
Ideologically, Buttigieg is a progressive. He has called for expanding the Supreme Court, abolishing the Electoral College, and even implementing a guaranteed basic income for all Americans. However, the main theme of his campaign is generational change, and using this idea to win back Rust Belt voters who supported Trump in 2016. By orienting his campaign around a generation instead of an ideology, Buttigieg humanizes politics in a way that has been largely lost in the fray of liberal and conservative politicians alike showboating on Capitol Hill.
This is what really sets Buttigieg apart in my mind. The philosophical underpinnings of his belief system are unlike those of any other presidential candidate in the 2020 field. At his core, Buttigieg believes that the whole point of politics is its impacts on everyday life. As one of the few candidates without experience in Washington, Buttigieg rejects what he calls the “show” of political coverage today.
He refuses to cave to the pressure of aligning himself on a fixed ideological line and resides outside of the culture wars and ideological battles of the Trump era, which he argues in an interview with Vox,“[have] a tendency to play into a construction that’s mostly there for the benefit of conservative politicians.” Instead, he astutely observes that the average American voter behaves largely non-ideologically, and thus his campaign is focused on attracting Republican voters, not Republican legislators.
Nearly every part of the young mayor’s vision for our country is grounded in a belief that government can have a positive impact on the lived experience of each individual in this country. This vision of a government free from in-fighting and focused entirely on person-to-person service may seem naive given our current climate, but Buttigieg’s entire political career is centered around his belief that at its core, government can and should help.
His most compelling arguments for this vision shine through when he talks about his marriage to his husband, as he ties it to Americans’ embrace of strong families and equality. To illustrate impact of policy on individuals, Pete often explains,, as he did in his CNN town hall, that “the most important thing in my life––my marriage to my husband––exists by the grace of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court… That really important freedom in my life, the freedom to marry, came about because of choices that were made by policymakers who had power over me and millions of others.”
The way he manages to so thoughtfully and eloquently explain the raw, emotional connection at the heart of the relationship between policy and the people it affects is what originally drew me to him as a candidate. I wasn’t even aware he was in the race until my mother sent me the link to his town hall with just one line: “watch this NOW.” Something about his authenticity and his clear-eyed perception of the inherent good in our political system so evident in this widely viewed moment deeply resonated with my own beliefs, and if the polls are any indication, many Americans agree.
Additionally, the 37-year old Buttigieg has his finger on the pulse of the younger generations of Americans who are just beginning to come of age politically in a way that 77-year-old Bernie Sanders or 76-year-old Joe Biden simply cannot understand. An example of this rift lies in Buttigieg’s assessment of the “socialism vs. capitalism” debate that has roiled the Democratic Party in recent years.
Buttigieg told Vox’s Zach Beauchamp that he believes “part of the problem here is that you have one generation that grew up associating socialism with communism like they’re the same thing, and therefore also assuming that capitalism and democracy were inseparable. I’ve grown up in a time when you can pretty much tell that there’s tension between capitalism and democracy, and negotiating that tension is probably the biggest challenge for America right now.”
Above all, Buttigieg manages to harness the topic of his generational perspective, what many critics view to be one of his weaknesses, and turn it into a strength. As he declared in his town hall, “I also think that age can be an advantage here, if only because it allows me to communicate to the country a vision about what our country is going to look like in 2054. That’s the year I get to the current age of the current president… I think it gives you a different sense of urgency.”