Metro Weekly

Pete Buttigieg is primed to put America to the test: Are we ready for a gay President?

Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg on politics, the presidency, and why he's getting ready to run.

Pete Buttigieg

When Pete Buttigieg announced in December that he would not run for a third term as mayor of South Bend, Ind., it quickly became apparent his eyes were fixed on a bigger political prize. Rather than aim for a statewide office, however, Buttigieg had set his sights higher. Much higher. In January, he formed an exploratory committee to look into a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

Four years ago, the idea that Buttigieg — a gay, 37-year-old former Naval reservist, consultant, and mayor of a city of just over 100,000 residents — could be a candidate for the presidency would have been dismissed with derisive laughter from pundits on both sides of the political aisle. But Buttigeig’s supporters note that he has more government experience than the current Oval Office occupant, and a longer record of military service than any president since the recently departed George H.W. Bush.

“My background is certainly unconventional for this, but I think that could be an asset,” Buttigieg says. “I’m a mayor, so my understanding of government is formed from the on the ground level where you’re solving problems, getting things done. There’s no one else to call sometimes, so you just have to find a solution.”

Were he to be elected, Buttigieg would become the youngest president ever to assume office. He would also become the first openly gay president, though he treats his sexual orientation as more of an afterthought, realizing that most voters don’t care so long as a candidate is talking about their needs and concerns.

“Being gay has had no bearing on my job performance in business, in the military, or in my current role as mayor,” Buttigieg wrote in a 2015 coming out essay for the South Bend Tribune. “It makes me no better or worse at handling a spreadsheet, a rifle, a committee meeting, or a hiring decision. It doesn’t change how residents can best judge my effectiveness in serving our city: by the progress of our neighborhoods, our economy, and our city services.”

Downplaying the importance of his sexuality is the same reason why Buttigieg prefers to ignore Donald J. Trump, whom he considers a distraction that too many Democrats allow to sideline their message — especially when they try to respond to every insult or dig uttered by the president on Twitter.

“I think part of how we got here, part of why we have this president, was we had an election cycle where our candidate was talking about herself, or she was talking about him,” Buttigieg recently told CNN’s Kate Bolduan. “And a lot of people at home were saying, ‘Okay, but who’s talking about me?'”

Pete Buttigieg (left) with husband Chasten

Another aspect of Buttigieg’s campaign is his age, which not only colors his views on policy, but is a significant part of his pitch. As a millennial, Buttigieg sees his generation saddled with debt and a number of societal problems that are the direct result of bad or cautious policies promoted by previous generations.

As such, he’s promoting drastic changes in the political system, which range from his call to abolish the Electoral College to a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and from his support for a version of the “Green New Deal” to fight climate change, to offering people the choice to buy into Medicare as a “public option” on the Obamacare exchanges.

“Things are changing tectonically in our country, and we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing,” the presidential hopeful told CBS News earlier this month. “We can’t nibble around the edges of a system that no longer works.”

To be sure, Buttigieg faces an uphill battle in the primary, let alone the general election. He doesn’t have the name recognition of an Elizabeth Warren, a Kirsten Gillibrand, or a Kamala Harris, who have all been touted as presidential contenders since their ascensions to the U.S. Senate. He doesn’t have the legions of Twitter followers or shiny, poll-tested, squeaky-clean image of Cory Booker — which comes complete with an almost God-like mythology around how the former Newark, N.J., mayor used Twitter to stay on top of developments in the city and solve problems in real time, even rescuing a woman from a burning house before the Fire Department arrived. He doesn’t have loyal followers that mob him the way that people under 30 do when Bernie Sanders arrives at a rally or march. And he doesn’t charm swing voters with the kind of Devil-may-care, shoot-from-the-hip, blunt-speaking style that only Joe Biden seems to be able to master, despite the former Vice President’s propensity for verbal gaffes.

Rather, Buttigieg’s image is somewhere at the intersection of Midwestern nice and Harvard and Rhodes Scholar-style brainiac. Mayor Pete, as he’s known back home, exudes a quiet confidence and a self-deprecating humor. He’s not one to put on airs or hog the spotlight — the polar opposite of a reality-star president who perfectly embodies a society where the Kardashians are royalty and everybody seems to be fighting to be the next viral YouTube or Instagram sensation.

In addition to appearances on the campaign trail, particularly in the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg has released Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future (Liveright, $27.95), which serves as an autobiographical introduction to voters outside of his native Indiana who are not political junkies. The book covers his journey away from and back to his home state as a college student and post-graduate professional, his unsuccessful campaign for state treasurer, his stint as South Bend mayor, his military service in Afghanistan, and his personal interactions with current Vice President and former Indiana Governor Mike Pence.

When it comes to assessing his fellow Democratic competitors, Buttigieg thinks the diversity of candidates who are either running or have launched exploratory committees reflects well on the party as an inclusive home for voters who have essentially been abandoned by the GOP. But he also warns that Democrats have to tread carefully in order to avoid being seen as excluding Americans who are not part of traditional Democratic constituencies.

“The current president and the politics around him have certainly done an effective job of wedging off different parts of the American people against each other,” he says. “But I think our job is to knit that back together in a stronger and richer fabric than we’ve ever had. All of us can play a role in that. A woman of color from the coast, or a young gay veteran from the Midwest who happens to be white. We all have something to offer.”

Pete Buttigieg with his parents

METRO WEEKLY: What’s the main reason that you are considering a run for the presidency?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: The central reason is that America is in a major realignment, and we need fresh perspectives, including voices from a new generation that has a personal stake in the consequences of the decisions that are being made today. That goes for everything — from decisions around taxes and the bills that are being run up for our generation to pay in the future, to issues like climate change, which I think has risen to the level of a justice issue and a national emergency, and requires a greater sense of urgency in order to deal with it properly.

My orientation also is that of somebody working in the industrial Midwest, which is a part of the country that is really close to the center of gravity for the political conversation right now, because when it comes to many policies, the true test of them is whether they can benefit communities like mine.

MW: What misperceptions do you think people on the coasts have of those in middle America?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think we are often characterized, or even caricatured, as stagnant and backward-looking communities. What I witness [every day] is amazing resilience and creativity among residents in the so-called Rust Belt. We’re also characterized as aging communities, but one very exciting thing here has been seeing a resurgence of young people staying or moving into the city, and a kind of partnership across generations to make sure that the future in the city is a good one.

I think that there’s some on the coast — and this is also part of the political calculus in the current White House — who believe we are a backward-looking people and that the way to our hearts is resentment. And I just don’t think that’s the real character of this region. That certainly hasn’t been the character in South Bend, as we’ve changed our trajectory from what was described as a “dying city” to one that is growing again. We’re facing our challenges in a very resilient way.

MW: Speaking as a Democrat, how do you think the Democratic Party viewed in middle America?

BUTTIGIEG: I think one of the biggest problems, recently, has been that we tend to be viewed as the defenders of the system. There are a lot of broken features right now in our political system and our economic system. Especially in 2016, we came to look like what we were arguing was that the system was just fine. I think that’s one reason why there were a number of people who, in the end, narrowed their choices down to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Democrats need to show that we have the political will and the policy creativity to make deep changes to improve our economy and to improve our politics. I think we’re beginning to see evidence of that, but it’s going to take a very different style and substance in Democratic politics to really demonstrate how our leadership is better than what’s being offered by the other side.

Pete Buttigieg

MW: We hear a lot about internal fights in the Democratic Party between establishment and more progressive types. Where would you place yourself on the ideological spectrum?

BUTTIGIEG: I consider myself progressive. But I also think the left-center frame is beginning to outlive its usefulness, because sometimes we accept, at face value, terms that may not actually describe where the center is. A good example would be on something like background checks for guns, which is considered a “left” position. But it’s actually embraced by 90% of Americans, including a majority of gun owners, and even Republicans. So if you’re kind of strong on that issue, somebody might say you’re from the “left-wing,” when in fact you’re holding a position that most Americans are onboard with.

Similarly, with something like healthcare, we allowed the right to move the goalpost on what the center was. Single-payer or Medicare for All is effectively a centrist or compromise position, because the far-right position would be for it to be an all corporate free-for-all, like the Wild West, and the leftmost position would be nationalized medicine, where you have publicly-managed doctors and hospitals.

And a blend of those, or a compromise system, is a system where you have private providers, with a public payer, or private doctors with public insurance. And that’s what we’re talking about now in the Democratic Party. So some in the media or in the political space might characterize that as a left position, but in many ways, it’s actually a compromise.

MW: Do you support a Medicare for All system?

BUTTIGIEG: Yes. I think the best approach to get there is to start with what I could call “Medicare for All if you want it.” So taking a version of Medicare and making it available as a public option on the exchanges. If people like me are right that this is a better way to go, then more and more people will buy into it, and it will almost automatically become the main or the preferred payer in the U.S. system.

Pete Buttigieg

MW: Some people, particularly in your party, say that the biggest problem is money in politics. What’s your position on that?

BUTTIGIEG: We’re not accepting corporate PAC money, and I think that Citizens United was a disaster for U.S. politics. I think it has called our democracy into question, because effectively it has come to mean that dollars can vote, and, in some respects, have more rights than people do.

It may not be possible to remedy that without constitutional action, but I think we should contemplate that because I think our democracy’s worth it.

MW: Let’s focus on you for a moment. You were born and raised in South Bend.

BUTTIGIEG: That’s right.

MW: What was life like for you, growing up there?

BUTTIGIEG: I grew up in working- and middle-class neighborhoods in South Bend. South Bend’s a really great place to grow up. It wasn’t until I left and moved away that I came back and then realized how striking the presence of the vacant and abandoned houses and abandoned factories was. When I was growing up, that was just part of the scenery, and it didn’t really diminish my enjoyment of living here.

But I also grew up feeling that all the action must be somewhere else, and so I wanted to get away. When I did, that was when I began to feel a little more aware of having been changed by South Bend, and caring about Indiana a little more. It’s a story that I’m telling in this book that we’ve got coming out, called Shortest Way Home, where I try to explain a little more what the neighborhoods and the community were like when I grew up, and how I found my way to realizing that this is where I actually belonged.

Pete Buttigieg, returning home from Afghanistan

MW: What were you like as a child? Were you the smart one, the athletic one, or something else?

BUTTIGIEG: I definitely wasn’t the athletic one. I was always good in school. I was pretty bookish, a little bit nerdy, liked to watch Star Trek every day after school, and I’d probably say a little awkward, too. It wasn’t until later that I would have pictured being in a role like I’m in now. I probably started out more interested in sciences, and then later on became more of a humanities guy.

MW: Why did you decide to enlist in the military?

BUTTIGIEG: It’s something that was on my mind for years, and there was a family tradition of military service on my mother’s side. I always wanted to find some way to play a role, but I’d also always found a reason not to, and kind of dragged my feet on it.

The thing that really put me over the edge, actually, was when I was in Iowa in 2008. I was in rural Iowa, in some low-income communities, knocking on doors for Obama. And there were a striking number of very young men I met in these small towns — they almost seemed like kids to me — who were getting ready to go to basic training or otherwise made it clear they were headed into the military. And I started thinking about the contrast between times in history that I have studied, like when a young John F. Kennedy would go in the military, and it would be the environment where he would be put on equal terms with people with very different backgrounds and very different economic status than his.

And thinking about my own experience, and the fact that I couldn’t think of more than three or four people who I had known at Harvard who were going to be serving, it made me realize that I might be part of the problem if I weren’t serving. If I wasn’t going to make a career of it, I thought I should at least join the reserves so that I was just as liable to be called up as some other people, many of them from backgrounds that were more rural or more working-class than the life I was now living as a young professional in the city.

MW: When did you first realize that you were gay?

BUTTIGIEG: In hindsight, it wasn’t that hard to figure out by the time I was 12, but I was well into my 20s before I was really able to acknowledge or come to terms with it.

MW: What was your coming out like?

BUTTIGIEG: Coming out was a real struggle, especially because by the time I was starting to think about coming out, there were two parts of my professional life. One of them had to do with being in public service and public office, and the other had to do with being in the military, neither of which was an LGBT-friendly environment at the time.

But I also realized as I grew older that I wasn’t going to change, I wasn’t getting any younger, that I wanted to have a life, and the thing that really sealed it for me was when I deployed to Afghanistan. I think something about that experience and having my life on the line, and realizing that you live and die as one person, made me come home determined that I was going to do this sooner rather than later.

Within a year of that, I had figured out a way to come out and did it publicly, and I wasn’t sure what to expect from people around me here in Indiana, but I found that most people in the community embraced me and supported me just as before.

MW: You ultimately came out publicly in the middle of an election.

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. The timing was a little bit inconvenient, but it turned out to be a blessing, because it gave voters a chance to demonstrate that they were not going to hold my sexual orientation against me. When I did get reelected with 80% of the vote, I think it was an indication that South Bend is going to rate you based on the job you do, and not be distracted by something like sexual orientation.

MW: Do you think that holds true for the rest of Indiana, or in states politically similar to it? Is being an openly LGBTQ person a disqualifier?

BUTTIGIEG: I hope not. And if it was in the past, I think that’s changing. One thing we observed here in Indiana was when Pence attempted to pass this so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the blowback didn’t just come from the LGBTQ community or, for that matter, from the left. It was an alliance of Republicans and Democrats, mayors from both parties, a lot of business leaders who all pushed back on that and said, “That’s not who we are and we don’t want to live in a state that is getting a reputation for being anti-gay.” I think that was a really encouraging sign, though it doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

I hear all the time from people in rural and conservative communities in Indiana, especially young people who are still finding it a real struggle to come out, or if they are out, to be accepted. But I do think that even in a very conservative state like Indiana, things are moving in the right direction.

Pete Buttigieg

MW: You’re now traveling and trying to improve your name recognition, especially compared with some of your fellow Democrats. What’s the campaign trail like?

BUTTIGIEG: First of all, we’re leveraging social media to make sure that we can reach people, even those in very different geographies or from different walks of life than those who will run into me naturally [on the campaign trail]. We’re launching a national book tour that will have us traveling from coast to coast, and with that come more media opportunities. I’ll be on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and I have other opportunities to get known.

The other thing that we’re really relying on is the dynamic of early states, where voters take a much closer look at people. You get to a place like Iowa, where we just had our first visit since launching the exploratory committee, and lots of people — lots more than I expected — came out to see me and ask me questions, to get to know me. You can tell the voters there take their privileged position very seriously, as far as being an early voting state.

A good performance in those early states then gets you onto the map for more of the national conversation, and, in particular, because of some changes to the primary schedule, it is going to become a national race more quickly than it has in the past.

MW: Do you feel that being a white cisgender man is a detriment in the Democratic Party, because you appear to be part of the status quo and don’t provide enough of a contrast with the current president?

BUTTIGIEG: I can’t think of a person more different than the current president than I am. But look, everybody brings their own background and their own style into this conversation, and I think that’s very healthy. I think the historic diversity of the emerging Democratic field is something that reflects well in our party and it reflects well on our country.

I also think the right kind of politics will be one that knits people together across some of these divides. I think the sense of belonging that animates the desire of a trans woman of color to be treated fairly is not that fundamentally different from the desire for belonging that impacts a white, blue-collar auto worker who has been disrupted economically and is trying to figure out where he fits in this economy and this community going forward.

MW: You recently told Jake Tapper on CNN that the word “socialism” has lost its power as an attack on certain policies being promoted by the Democratic Party. There’s since been major criticism of you by right-wing sites, who are twisting your words to claim you are speaking kindly of or praising socialism. Are you saying that once everything is categorized as “socialist,” it loses its sting?

BUTTIGIEG: I think that’s right. I mean, it’s like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” right? Everything is socialism and nothing is socialism. Not only is this evidence of the way that they’ve used the word “socialist” since the 1990s, in the sense that “socialist” means anything Republicans don’t like, but it shows that they aren’t really looking at the content of ideas. They can’t even look at the difference between people who call themselves socialists. To them, there’s no distinction between the Maduro regime in Venezuela and Sweden.

I think we need to just have a more adult conversation. And the point I was trying to make on CNN was just that: the days have ended where they could use that word to kill the debate about a policy. When we’re debating a policy, we should debate whether it’s a good one, not what label attaches to it.

MW: Why do you think that millennials or people from younger generations are more immune to that word? What has made it different from our parents or our grandparents?

BUTTIGIEG: I think we weren’t politically aware in a time when socialism was conflated with communism, and communism meant the Soviet experience, right? We didn’t see that. It was much easier when people were looking with horror at what was going on in the Soviet Union to think that anything with a wisp of socialism was something they just didn’t want to touch.

I think the other thing is that our generation has had reasons to be more skeptical of conservatism. In our lifetimes, the main things we’ve seen conservatives do is try to persuade us that tax cuts pay for themselves, insist that we do nothing about climate change, convince us to enter into conflicts like the war in Iraq, and make sure people like me couldn’t get married. So just the practical record of the conservative movement, for anybody who’s our age or younger, looks a little different than it must look to somebody who came of age in the ’80s or in the ’60s.

Pete Buttigieg, at his wedding with husband Chasten

MW: How much more seriously do Democrats and the left need to start taking the role of a president in appointing justices, not just to the Supreme Court, but to the federal bench?

BUTTIGIEG: I think it’s incredibly important because, as the hard right gets further and further out of step with the American mainstream — even as legislative bodies catch up to where the American people actually are politically — the only place they can have a sort of rear guard action will be through the judiciary, trying to overrule what legislatures elected by the American people decide to do.

MW: And how do you engage people on that?

BUTTIGIEG: I think we just have to remind people of the rights that are at stake. And as somebody whose marriage exists as a function of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court, I think I’m in a position to help make that case.

For more information on Pete Buttigieg’s campaign, visit www.peteforamerica.com.

Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future is available at KramerBooks (1517 Connecticut Ave. NW), Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; 70 District Square SW; and Union Market). Metro Weekly recommends you support these local bookstores.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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