- Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is running for president.
- The 37-year-old, who has been labelled as the “millennial” candidate, is not afraid of his odds in a Democratic candidate pool that many say is too crowded.
- Buttigieg, a veteran and Rhodes scholar, is the first openly-gay municipal executive in Indiana.
- In a call with INSIDER, Buttigieg shared why he, South Bend’s “Mayor Pete,” deserves the Democratic Party’s consideration.
Pete Buttigieg had just finished a speaking engagement when he picked up the phone and dialed.
He had a few minutes to chat before hoping on to his next appointment. He is, after all, in the first few days of his presidential bid.
The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is not a completely unknown force in the American political sphere, at least not among Democrats. Buttigieg once ran for the leadership of the Democratic National Committee. Though he lost, he gained national notoriety and the attention of Democratic kingmakers David Axelrod and Dan Pfeiffer, who said they would stay tuned for the young mayor’s next moves.
His next move, some would say, is a huge one. But Buttigieg (pronounced “BOOT-edge-edge”) is not afraid of the odds.
“It’s time for a new generation to step forward,” he said when asked why he decided to run now, as a 37-year-old candidate who has never held statewide, much less nationwide, office. “Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and George W. Bush were all born within a few weeks of each other in the same summer of the same year and, you know, their generation has been the lead for a long time. I think it’s time to give a new generation a chance.”
Buttigieg, who grew up in South Bend and went to Harvard before becoming a Rhodes scholar, takes pride on his hometown, a city he said picked up from the ashes left behind by a failed industrial economy. The story of South Bend, he said, is that of an industrial Midwest town that broke free from its nostalgia and resentment to find a future “in a different way.”
“We were being written off as dying, literally, when I took office and we’ve been able to really change the course of our city,” he said. “There are ways for workers to succeed and grow in a modern, globalized, automated economy. There’s a role for workers besides that of victim, and that’s the story I want to share with the world.”
From South Bend to the national stage
Though now he is running for president, Buttigieg didn’t always dream of being in office. As a kid, he wanted to be an astronaut.
“My eyesight took care of that career path,” he said.
With his space plans shot, Buttigieg’s political ambitions began to kick in in high school and fully took over in college.
“I learned about the history of public service that the way that decisions made across the 20th century really made our national life what it was and made it so much better,” he said. “I didn’t realise that local government was going to be where I would be able to make the difference, but in the end that proved to be the place where I really belonged and where I spent the better part of part of my 30s and most of this decade.”
Buttigieg first ran for office in 2010, at the age of 28, when he was the Democratic nominee for Indiana state treasurer. He did it because he wanted to defend auto workers who he said were “being really abused” by a sitting state treasurer who “was in a quest to block the rescue of the American auto industry.”
“It got me fired up,” he said. “I didn’t win, but I learned about the value of standing up for what you believe in even when you can’t make it.”
In 2009, he joined the military as a commissioned Naval intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve.
He was called into active service in 2013, when he was two years into his first term as South Bend’s mayor. After seven months of service, he came back and resumed his position. At the end of 2013, he was named Mayor of the Year by GovFresh.com, tying with New York’s Mike Bloomberg.
During his run for a second term as mayor, Buttigieg came out in an essay published in the South Bend Tribune. He became the first openly-gay municipal executive in Indiana and won his reelection campaign with over 80% of the vote.
Buttigieg is married to Chasten Glezman, a teacher, and has become the first openly-gay man to run for the White House. To him, that shows that the times are changing.
“It’s it’s not lost on me that there’s this historic quality to this candidacy,” he said. “When I was a kid, I didn’t think it would even be possible to be out and also to put your name forward for the presidency. I wasn’t sure it’d be possible to run for office at all.”
To him, winning reelection as an openly gay man in Indiana during the governorship of Mike Pence (who in the past supported conversion therapy) shows that voters “aren’t necessarily ideological, you can reach them at a human level.”
“That’s what I would hope to do in this effort too,” he said.
As he joins a Democratic primary field that many say will be too crowded, an unafraid Buttigieg said he’s ready to take on the challenge. As someone from a newer generation of politicians, he said he has a “more urgent and personal sense of perspective on the big issues of our time.”
“If you’re planning to be here in 2054, which is when I’m going to be the age of the current president, you take issues like climate change personally,” he said. “If you know that you’re going to be paying the bill for the tax cuts they pass for the wealthiest Americans, you take that personally, and I think that’s going to resonate.”
That, however, doesn’t mean Buttigieg considers himself “a young candidate for young voters.”
“I think a lot of seniors that I talked to love the idea of empowering a new generation and, frankly, that’s part of how I got elected in South Bend too,” he said. “I get that it’s a leap, but I also think that part of running for any office is looking at what the office needs looking at, what you bring to the table, and gauging if there’s a match.”
For Buttigieg, it all comes down to what voters, not the establishment, wants.
“I get that a lot of people are bringing different levels of fame, different levels of visibility to this,” he said, “but I also know that a good number of people responding to polls so far said what they most want to see is something completely new and somewhat different, and that’s certainly what I am.”