WASHINGTON — Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old Democratic wunderkind mayor of South Bend, Indiana, joined the 2020 presidential fray on Wednesday morning.
I launched a presidential exploratory committee because it is a season for boldness and it is time to focus on the future. Are you ready to walk away from the politics of the past?
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) January 23, 2019
Buttigieg’s place at the forefront of a new crop of political leaders — “The First Millennial President?” was the headline of a recent Washington Post Magazine profile — figures prominently in his announcement video. “I belong to a generation that is stepping forward right now,” he says. “We’re the generation that lived through school shootings, that served in the wars after 9/11. And we’re the generation that stands to be the first to make less than our parents. Unless we do something different.”
The video touts Buttigieg’s successful two terms as mayor, a period during which he helped lead a revival of South Bend, which had been battered by decades of deindustrialization and the financial crash of 2007-08. By the time he took office in 2012 at the age of 29, the youngest mayor of a city with more than 100,000 people, South Bend had found itself on lists of once-great dying cities in America. He introduced initiatives to combat blight by rehabilitating or demolishing 1,000 homes in 1,000 days (met 62 days ahead of schedule), create bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets and redevelop South Bend’s hollowed-out downtown district.
A Harvard grad, Rhodes Scholar and Naval Reservist who served in Afghanistan, Buttigieg came out as gay in the pages of the local newspaper in 2015 and later live-streamed his marriage ceremony on YouTube. In June 2016, Frank Bruni of The New York Times traveled to South Bend for a glowing profile of Buttigieg titled “The First Gay President?” In an interview with the New Yorker in the final days of his presidency, Barack Obama named Buttigieg as one of four Democrats who would lead the Democratic Party into the future.
Buttigieg’s stature only increased when he launched a long-shot bid for chairman of the Democratic National Committee in early 2017, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory. He predicted that Trump’s tenure in the White House would be the “most monstrous presidency of our lifetime.” To combat that, he argued, the Democratic Party needed a reboot and new voices and leadership that came from the local and state levels. “The solutions that our party needs aren’t going to come from Washington,” he said during an MSNBC appearance.
Buttigieg’s DNC candidacy never quite caught on and he pulled out of the race before the final vote. But he boosted his national profile in a party lacking in young talent. He launched a PAC, Hitting Home, and used it to campaign for Democratic candidates in the South and other regions of the country. In interviews and stump speeches, he spoke about the urgency to tackle issues such as gun violence, climate change and civil rights, and about the need to connect those issues to the “kitchen table” and to “everyday” people.
But the challenge facing Democrats in the Trump era goes deeper than that, he says. “I think there is a failure on our side if we allow conservatives to monopolize the idea of freedom — especially now that they’ve produced an authoritarian president,” he told Rolling Stone last year. “But what actually gives people freedom in their lives?” He listed off the freedom to marry, but also the freedom that comes from living in places with paved roads and working stop lights because it frees people up from worrying about those concerns. “The most profound freedoms of my everyday existence,” he went on, “have been safeguarded by progressive policies, mostly.”
Buttigieg is the first mayor to enter the 2020 fray but possibly not the last. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is eyeing a run, as are two former mayors, Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans and Mike Bloomberg of New York. In his Rolling Stone interview, Buttigieg said his tenure as South Bend’s mayor tethered him to local issues and the lived, day-to-day reality of the people he served in a way that is much harder to come by for a U.S. senator or congressman.
“People are aching to see their political leaders actually doing stuff,” he said. “When you’re a mayor, that’s your whole job. Working in local politics is also a great alternative to the fact-free zone we’ve been living in. When somebody calls to say, ‘Mayor, there’s a hole in the road,’ I can’t say, ‘No, there isn’t.’ They’re gonna call bullshit on that. They can point to the pothole. So there’s a connection to reality at this moment when our politics has gotten so untethered.”
His experience with the nitty-gritty of local governance, blended with youth and demand for generational change in the Democratic Party, is Buttigieg’s opening pitch to voters. Now, he finds out if, in the Trump era, it’s the sort of pitch the party faithful are hungering for.