It may seem a long shot for the gay mayor of a small city to seek the presidency — but Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., insists he has a chance — and the qualifications.
“The bottom line is I think it’s time for a new generation of leadership,” says the mayor, who today announced he’s launching an exploratory committee regarding the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. It’s not a formal commitment to run for the nomination, but a first step toward doing so.
At 37, Buttigieg notes that he just barely makes the cut as a millennial. Issues important to his generation include climate change, universal health care, and economic innovation, he tells The Advocate. And, he says, the nation is ready for an out presidential nominee. “We’ve come such a long way,” he says.
In the video announcement about his exploratory committee (watch below), he mentions that his generation provided most of the troops in the post-9/11 wars and stands to experience extreme effects of climate change, but is also the first generation to know marriage equality as the norm. If he wins the nomination, he would be the first out major-party presidential nominee; he’s not the first to try, as activist Fred Karger sought the Republican nomination in 2012 and was on the ballot in several primaries.
Buttigieg is in his second term as mayor of his native city, having been elected in 2011 and taken office in 2012. He didn’t come out, though, until his reelection campaign in 2015. Asked why he waited until then, he says, “You’re ready when you’re ready, and I was ready.” Although “there was some ugliness,” he was reelected with 80 percent of the vote, he recalls. His husband, middle school teacher Chasten Glezman, was with him at the announcement today. They were married last year.
Buttigieg was fighting for LGBTQ rights before he came out; South Bend adopted an inclusive antidiscrimination ordinance early in his mayoral tenure, in 2012. He also was outspoken against Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, enacted in 2015, which was widely viewed as granting a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others who might offend certain religious sensibilities. The legislature and then-Gov. Mike Pence eventually agreed to amend the act so it would not enable discrimination.
The mayor came out in a column in the South Bend Tribune June 16, 2015, a couple of months after Pence signed the RFRA “fix.” He wrote that being gay had no bearing on his performance as mayor or in any other job, but that being open about it could help fight prejudices and stereotypes, and help the state move on from what he called the “disastrous” RFRA episode. He also noted that the U.S. Supreme Court was expected to issue its decision on marriage equality any day, and he said he hoped to be able to marry one day and raise a family.
“I hope that when my children are old enough to understand politics, they will be puzzled that someone like me revealing he is gay was ever considered to be newsworthy,” he continued. “By then, all the relevant laws and court decisions will be seen as steps along the path to equality.”
Buttigieg says he first became interested in politics while attending Harvard University, given the history of the Kennedy family there. He has an undergrad degree in history and literature from Harvard; he then attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, going through its Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program.
He worked in the private sector for the consulting firm McKinsey and Co., and made his first run for public office in 2010, challenging Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a Republican who was one of the chief opponents of President Obama’s rescue of the auto industry. Mourdock was reelected as treasurer, but in 2012, when he ran for U.S. Senate, said that pregnancies resulting from rape were God’s will — and he lost that race to Democrat Joe Donnelly.
Buttigieg also ran for chair of the Democratic National Committee in 2017. His other experience includes military service — he joined the Navy Reserve in 2009 and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014.
“I have considerably more government experience than the president, more executive experience than the vice president, and more military experience than the two of them put together,” he says. He also says cities are proving to be the most functional level of government.
He takes pride in the economic recovery of South Bend, a city of about 100,000 in northern Indiana. The city’s name is widely associated with Notre Dame University, but Buttigieg points out that the campus is located outside the city limits, although the university is undoubtedly an economic driver for South Bend.
But like many cities in the Midwest, South Bend was hit hard by the decline in American manufacturing. It was hit earlier than most, with the abrupt closure of automaker Studebaker in 1963 and the ripple effects going forward. There is still some manufacturing in South Bend, but the city has also embraced technology, with once-abandoned factories now occupied by firms involved in data analysis and other high-tech businesses.
Buttigieg describes his platform briefly as “freedom, democracy, security.” Security includes cyber security and security in voting, he says, and democracy includes expanded representation in politics for Washington, D.C., and for territories such as Puerto Rico. And freedom dovetails with another of his priorities, universal health care, as you aren’t free to change jobs or become an entrepreneur if you’re dependent on your job for health insurance, he notes. He says he’s supportive of incremental steps toward the goal of universal coverage.
The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect out candidates to office, is excited about Buttigieg. “An openly LGBTQ elected official forming a presidential exploratory committee is a historic and powerful moment for the LGBTQ community and the entire country,” said a statement issued by Victory Fund president and CEO Annise Parker. “Exactly 50 years after the Stonewall uprising that gave birth to the modern LGBTQ rights movement, we are finally in a place where an openly LGBTQ presidential candidate can be a serious contender. For the teenager in small-town America who is just coming to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity, having an openly LGBTQ person running for the most important political office in the world will demonstrate there is no limit to what they can achieve — and that is transformative.”
She added that while Buttigieg “is not running on his sexual orientation, his presence will undoubtedly elevate LGBTQ issues in the Democratic primary. LGBTQ voters are an important part of the primary base, and with Mayor Buttigieg on the campaign trail and on the debate stages, other Democratic presidential candidates will need to be outspoken and well-versed on LGBTQ equality issues.”
“He brings a unique set of skills and values to the race as a successful two-term executive, a first-generation American and a gay war veteran from a deep red state,” she continued. “Mayor Buttigieg understands that Americans are tired of politics as blood-sport and instead want politicians to address real issues affecting real lives. He sees the similarities between the blue-collar worker in Indiana, the undocumented immigrant in Arizona, and the young lesbian in middle school in rural Virginia – and he believes with strong leadership all their lives can be improved. Our country is in crisis and it is essential diverse perspectives are heard in this presidential race.”