Could This 36-Year-Old Indiana Mayor Topple Trumpism?

He’s a veteran, he’s openly gay, he’s reviving a Rust Belt city: A candid conversation with Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg is perpetually on the move. When the South Bend, Indiana, mayor spoke to Rolling Stone last Wednesday, he was en route to a local speaking gig while sorting out his thoughts for a big speech the next day that had just come up at the last minute. “Just got a call today from [Sen.] Dick Durbin, asking me to fill in for Joe Biden at Democrat Day at the Illinois State Fair,” he says. “Talk about some shoes to fill!”  

The symbolism could not be missed: The septuagenarian Democratic eminence, under doctor’s orders, was handing the mic to the 36-year-old upstart he might be squaring off against in the 2020 presidential primaries. If Buttigieg tries to make the oceans-wide leap from running a small Rust Belt city to running the United States, as many expect, he will offer a vivid contrast to not only the former vice president but the rest of a sure-to-be-crowded Democratic field — and not just because he’d likely be the lone representative of the millennial generation. “Mayor Pete,” as he encourages everyone to call him, is a Rhodes Scholar who left a prestigious consulting job to return home, still in his 20s, to run for mayor of one of America’s Top 10 “dying cities.” Since taking office in 2011, he’s not only led an economic turnaround in South Bend but also served a seven-month tour of Naval duty in Afghanistan and came out as gay in a 2015 op-ed for the South Bend Tribune. (His wedding to Chasten Glezman this past June was livestreamed on YouTube.)

It’s not exactly your classic journey to political power. But early last year, Buttigieg burst onto the national Democratic scene after jumping into another race that everybody thought he was nuts to undertake, challenging both the Hillary and Bernie favorites for Democratic National Committee chair. Brimming with out-of-the-box ideas for a grassroots reboot of a party still reeling from 2016, Buttigieg ran rhetorical laps around both Tom Perez and Keith Ellison in a candidate forum, and scored powerful endorsements — including from former DNC chair Howard Dean and four other ex-national chairs — before bowing out prior to the balloting.

Barack Obama is also a fan. In an exit interview with The New Yorker, Obama named Buttigieg as one of four Democrats who’d lead the party forward. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni visited South Bend and predicted he’d just met the “first gay president.”  Shortly after the DNC race, Buttigieg launched a PAC called Hitting Home to boost young progressives running for local office. This fall, he’ll be stumping widely for Democratic candidates and publishing a campaign-launching book right after the midterms.

As he rode toward another destination on his uncharted path, Buttigieg sounded preternaturally calm, expounding for nearly an hour on the politics of his rising generation and how it stands to reinvent American progressivism. Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

 I’ve long been curious about a line in your op-ed about coming to terms with your sexuality: “Being gay,” you wrote, “has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor.” Maybe because I’m also gay, I was a little taken aback by that. How could the experience of belonging to an often-despised minority not affect the way you do your work?
I do think we all bring our whole personal combination of experiences to every role that we have, and to our jobs. I realized very early as mayor that I would be judged, and wanted to be judged, by how well I did the job. As a minority of any kind, there’s a risk of being viewed as representing your group rather than just doing your job. I don’t get up in the morning thinking, “How can I be the best gay mayor today?” I get up and go to work to make sure we’re plowing the streets and doing what needs to be done. It was a relief when I learned, in the reaction to what I wrote, that this is how the community thinks about it as well.  

So you might agree with others that think Democrats have gone a bit overboard with “identity politics.”
I find it frustrating when a framework is imposed on you that asks you to represent a part of your identity rather than your ideas. A lot of times during the DNC [chair] race, I would joke that as the left-handed, red-state, Oxford-educated, Maltese-American military veteran in the race — well, if I tried to understand my place in the world strictly through identity, it would be pretty confusing for me, not to mention for others. And pretty hard for others to identify with too.

Mayor Pete at South Bend International Airport in 2014 after returning from a seven-month tour of duty with the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan.

There’s another kind of “identity” that Democrats and pundits are always eager to hang on candidates: where they fit on the left-to-center scale, whether they’re in the Hillary or Bernie camps. So let me give you a warm-up for those endless questions: What kind of Democrat are you?
I’m a progressive Democrat. I’ve never shied away from that.

But people aren’t going to let you get away with just saying that. They’ll want to know more about where you fit on the ideological spectrum.
The left-versus-center framework is becoming less and less helpful. There was a really interesting article in Politico about this. Positions that have been characterized as “left” are positions that the vast majority of people in both parties hold. That’s true even for supposedly divisive issues. Requiring background checks for guns, for instance, is something 90 percent of the country supports. How is that not centrist?  

What that whole debate about whether Democrats should go more to the center or further left gets wrong is that the center of gravity of the American people is way to the left of the center of gravity of Congress, and, in many ways, to the left of the national Democratic Party.

How did we get this idea of what “centrism” means — or the idea that Democrats can only win by tacking in that direction?
In the 1990s, it represented a correction of sorts, a recognition that the country had entered a conservative era after the liberal period from the 1930s to the ‘60s. A lot of people viewed a move to the right as a way to capture independents, and, in some ways, it was at that time. We still have to reach independents to win. But doing it is no longer as simple as looking at the Republicans and getting halfway there, if it ever really was.

Conservatives in my generation have had a much better relationship to their first principles. Every young Republican in Washington has their volumes of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. And you could draw a direct line to their politics, at least before the scrambling that happened with Trumpism. The left has become the side with less philosophical cohesion and less of a connection to guiding principles. We’ve spent the last 30 years arguing not about whether our policies and ideas are right, but whether they’re close enough to the Republican side.

“There’s a failure on our side if we allow conservatives to monopolize the idea of freedom — especially now that they’ve produced an authoritarian president.”

Now is the potential change. We’re into what I think of as the illegible era. It’s a good time for the left to get back to basics. We have to understand the philosophical basis for progressivism, then figure out the politics, rather than the other way around. The [Bernie] Sanders phenomenon illustrates the power of conviction. Our Democratic political class, for the most part, has lost the muscle memory to design a politics around principle.

How do you define those principles, those basics?
You’ll hear me talk all the time about freedom. Because 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. But what actually gives people freedom in their lives? The most profound freedoms of my everyday existence have been safeguarded by progressive policies, mostly. The freedom to marry who I choose, for one, but also the freedom that comes with paved roads and stop lights. Freedom from some obscure regulation is so much more abstract. But that’s the freedom that conservatism has now come down to.

Or think about the idea of family, in the context of everyday life. It’s one thing to talk about family values as a theme, or a wedge — but what’s it actually like to have a family? Your family does better if you get a fair wage, if there’s good public education, if there’s good health care when you need it. These things intuitively make sense, but we’re out of practice talking about them.

I also think we need to talk about a different kind of patriotism: a fidelity to American greatness in its truest sense. You think about this as a local official, of course, but a truly great country is made of great communities. What makes a country great isn’t chauvinism. It’s the kinds of lives you enable people to lead. I think about wastewater management as freedom. If a resident of our city doesn’t have to give it a second thought, she’s freer.

Is this one reason people are talking about mayors — yourself, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans — as potential presidents, when that wouldn’t have occurred to Democrats even a few years ago?
Part of it has to do with frustration toward Washington. The discussion in Washington has become so self-referential and removed from reality. People are aching to see their political leaders actually doing stuff. 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. When you’re a local official, when you’re a mayor, every interaction you have with a resident is basically coming face-to-face with your boss. Even if you’re a member of Congress, certainly a governor or senator, you have staffers around you all the time rather than the people you work for. When I have to go to the grocery, just for some beer and toilet paper, I’m going to run into those folks and they are going to tell me what’s on their minds.

If you were running for any higher office — whether it’s governor or senator or president — what would you boast about in terms of what’s been accomplished in South Bend under your mayoralty?
One-thousand houses in 1,000 days. I pledged, early on, that we’d either fix up or demolish many of our decaying structures in that time frame. We did it, and in a way that has really strengthened low-income neighborhoods. Beyond that, we’ve reimagined what cities are even for — promoting the idea of human exchange. We’ve restructured our streets and downtown to make for a more vibrant city life. We couldn’t raise taxes if we wanted to – property taxes are capped in Indiana. Partly because of that, we’ve done a lot to make government more efficient, which is not just about technology, like the sophisticated 3-1-1 [constituent-service system] we created. Low-tech methods are equally important. Every month or two, I take a card table and go to a local school and stay till I run out of people who want to see me. We get so many ideas from that.

That’s the smart way for me to answer your question. But there’s also an honest answer: Our city believes in itself again. All through the years I was growing up, success was cast as having to do with getting out of the city, leaving South Bend. Now young people are moving in and back, creating podcasts, launching startups and maker spaces. We had to paint a picture of the future that did not translate into nostalgia. The word “again” was not part of our vision; we never used that word. The message from the start was, “The Studebaker plant isn’t coming back, but we are, and here’s how.” And when people heard that message, they didn’t need to be young for it to resonate with them.

I think this is important, at a moment when we’ve been offered a national vision that greatness means turning back the clock. Resentment is not the only formula for getting people to believe again. This is way harder to quantify, of course. But if you come to South Bend, especially if you were there 10 years ago, you can just tell. It’s a different place.

As you’ve suggested, there’s a clear connection in all of that to national politics in 2018.
Americans need to believe in each other again. Believing in other people who are different from you doesn’t come from talking about “let’s set aside our differences,” or mealy-mouthed pledges to bring us all together. It stems from coming together and working on something hard. This is something you pick up in the military. I learned to trust my life with people who have radically different politics, and vice-versa. We’re in the same fucking truck, and we’re going into hostile ground, you’re not thinking about how the people with you are different.

As a country, we have to do the same: Come together around some pretty big changes. Climate change. Economic change. How are we going to end two decades of war? What is your career path going to look like if automation makes it necessary to keep changing jobs all through your working life? These challenges are frightening, but also exciting.

One of the reasons people point to you as a presidential contender is that, as mayor of a city like South Bend, you must know how to speak to the white working-class folks who rejected Clinton and got fired up about Trump.
The reason this is legitimately important for Democrats is that we didn’t used to struggle in communities like mine. When Secretary Clinton came to town and I helped arrange for her to speak to a UAW [United Auto Workers] group — well, you could tell the enthusiasm wasn’t what you’d expect from a Democratic presidential candidate in a setting like that.

But we have to be thinking in terms of black working people as well as white working people. Along the way Democrats fell into this pattern of thinking we should have a message for each constituency. But the reality is that people care about issues that aren’t “their” issues, quote unquote. Elderly residents care about education. Women care about racial justice. 

Freedom and fairness and family: When you talk about those principles, what they really mean in people’s lives, it will make sense across identity groups. And it will make just as much sense in a post-Trump world as it will today.

Which leads to the inevitable question: Are you going to run to succeed Trump in 2020?
I’ve got a lot of decisions to make by the end of this calendar year. I’m focusing now on doing everything I can this fall to help build up state parties. But I do think that we’re understating the generational dynamics that are going on in politics. You see it especially in the quality candidates who are stepping up for unglamorous races, like school board. It’s more immediate and personal, the younger you are. You’re going to be on the business end of climate change, of tax cuts. You’re going to be touched more by our post-9/11 wars. We’ve seen it reflected for sure in the generational energy that’s changing how we look at gun violence.

In trying to understand those dynamics, has there been too much focus on democratic socialists like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez — and too much hoo-ha about how young people overwhelmingly say they prefer socialism to capitalism?
It’s a bit of a stretch to boil everything down that way. But then again, look at history. If I think about my grandparents’ generation, they lived at a time when the great conflict was socialism or communism versus capitalism. There was just an assumption that democracy and capitalism were inextricably tied together, one and the same. But now we’re beginning to see some tension between democracy and capitalism that’s reflected in our politics. If you ask younger voters, they’re interested in democracy first and capitalism second. We may be the first generation for whom that’s true.