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US 2020

The most extraordinary rise and rise of Democrats’ newest star, Mayor Pete Buttigieg

The most extraordinary rise and rise of Democrats’ newest star, Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Mayor Pete Buttigieg (R), of South Bend, Indiana, who has been mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, talks with reporters after addressing the National Action Network’s annual national convention in New York, New York, USA, 04 April 2019.EPA-EFE/JUSTIN LANE

Although there is well over a year before the next US presidential election, Pete Buttigieg, the openly gay mayor of a mid-sized Midwestern city, South Bend, Indiana, is making waves as a thoughtful, articulate candidate – and he is still only 37 years old.

It seems almost impossible to believe, but the 2020 US presidential election process is already well and truly underway. Numerous senators, congresspeople, former officials, and one mayor are already officially declared as candidates, or are on the verge of making their announcements. The first caucus state, Iowa, and the first primary votes are actually only about 10 months off into the future. But even more crucial right now are the competitions for fundraising for the upcoming campaigns and gaining positive exposure before appreciative live and televised audiences.

People like independent democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, Democratic Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand, several current and former members of the lower house like Beto O’Rourke, among others, have already staked their claim to be considered as the logical leader of their party in the coming general election. But two other men, very different in experience, age, and even temperament, have been gaining much of the attention.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, a silver-haired 76-year-old, seemingly in fighting trim, continues to perch on the cusp of deciding whether or not to take one last chance for the brass ring, following decades as a senator, vice president and twice unsuccessful presidential candidate (1988 and 2008). But in the past week or so, he has been dogged by a string of accusations that he has been rather more than a bit too touchy-feely with female supporters and attendees at meetings, even if no one is charging him with making actual unwanted, overt sexual overtures – let alone the adulterous, transactional relationships in the unapologetic style of the current president. Biden’s behaviour has been part of the up close, hands-on style he has always showed through his entire political life, but he is now taking flak over this behaviour as something now thoroughly out of place in the “Me Too” age.

But the second man is the incumbent mayor of the South Bend, Indiana – Peter Buttigieg.

Who is that?” we can just about hear our readers saying.

Buttigieg is just 37 years old, but he has a lot under his belt. He studied at Harvard, has been a Rhodes scholar, served as a naval intelligence analyst in Afghanistan, worked as a management analyst/consultant at McKinsey, learned a handful of languages (including Arabic and a self-taught competence in Norwegian), and is now serving his second term as South Bend’s mayor. That city has around 100,000 residents and its greater metropolitan area makes it the fourth largest in the state of Indiana.

Oh, and did we mention that Buttigieg publicly came out as gay some four years ago, and then got married? A few months later he was reelected with 80% of the vote. Indiana is a relatively strong conservative state and was “blessed” by many years of governorship by Mike Pence.

Buttigieg lives in a house close to the home he grew up in as a child. Both parents were professors at the University of Notre Dame and his father is of Maltese origin. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard with a BA in history and literature. He wrote his thesis on the influence of puritanism on US foreign policy, as reflected in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American. He received a first-class honours degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Pembroke College, Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

For those who don’t know much about South Bend, its two greatest claims to fame are that it is the home (well, okay, it is just beyond the city limits) of the University of Notre Dame. This university has an excellent academic reputation, but it is even better known for the phenomenal skills of its university football and basketball teams over generations. The other is that it is (or was) the site for the headquarters and main factory for Studebaker – a major automobile manufacturer until it died out in the 1960s. One of Buttigieg’s major interests has been in urban renewal and industry for the future, including efforts to turn the site of that vast auto assembly plant into a hi-tech innovation and employment growth hub.

His tenure in office has gained him various awards for his administration and its works, but that hardly explains how he became an unlikely hot ticket in the early rounds of the 2020 nomination process for the Democrats. What has done this, more than anything else, has been some all-star appearances on broadcast town halls like the one on CNN, or at speaking engagements such as a recent one at a Boston area university.

As Politico reported:

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and a nascent presidential candidate, riled up a crowd of more than 1,000 college students at Northeastern University on Wednesday. Part of his appeal, the students said, was that Buttigieg wasn’t trying to appeal to them.

The 37-year-old Democrat solidified his standing in the 2020 contest when he took in a $7-million fundraising haul in the first quarter of the year. On Wednesday, he staked out policy positions on higher education and healthcare, reflected on being a millennial in elected office, and spoke about religion and his military service during the hour-long talk….

He spoke with moderator Kimberly Atkins of public radio station WBUR for half an hour. When Atkins opened the conversation up to a question-and-answer period, there was a mad dash for several microphones stationed throughout the auditorium. Nearly two dozen people stood in line at each microphone while Buttigieg took questions for 30 minutes.

On policy, Buttigieg talked about a ‘Medicare for all who want it’ option that would ease consumers into public healthcare. He also called for a new generation of politicians, and suggested that Democrats should reclaim the idea of ‘freedom’ from Republican and Libertarian messaging. ‘Freedom for me has depended on the ability to get healthcare, the ability to marry the person I love, the ability to hold financial institutions accountable,’ Buttigieg said.”

Meanwhile, though, some writers from the LGBTI community have criticised Buttigieg for not, apparently, being sufficiently visible in that space, a criticism that has drawn a sharp rebuke from Frank Bruni, a commentator at The New York Times and also a gay man, effectively asking why, if being gay is normal, a man like Buttigieg must demonstrate his “gayness” somehow in order to be authentic enough for the community.

The critics’ line of argument seems to smack of the debate back in 2008 about whether Barack Obama was black enough to be authentically so. It is important to realise, however, that LGBTI status no longer represents the set of shackles it once was in the public space, especially as growing majorities of Americans – acknowledged in polling from groups like the Pew Research Center among others – show a sea change in the acceptance of same-sex marriage and related issues, even by Republicans.

It should also be noted that a black, openly gay, female candidate Lori Lightfoot, has just won the race for the mayorship of Chicago, the nation’s third largest city. LGBTI status, and the presence or absence of supposed hallmarks of such status, seem no longer to be a disqualifying factor – although Buttigieg’s youth and relative lack of national experience or exposure are sure to be highlighted in the party primaries by opponents.

Should he actually achieve the nomination, there will certainly be intense attention on whether or not Donald Trump goes to limp-wrist-style mockery, in an attempt to delegitimate candidate Buttigieg and to appeal to the MAGA base and any other homophobes casting ballots in 2020.

Of course, we are still many miles to go between this boomlet for Buttigieg and the actual nomination. At his age and level of experience, it may be that he is secretly angling for serious consideration as the vice presidential candidate – or to secure a real footing for himself for the race in 2024, when he would still be among the youngest presidential candidates in history. But first he must get past two septuagenarians – Sanders and Biden – as well as a dozen or so others. Regardless, he has already gained a toehold as an implausible, but plausible, candidate. DM

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