"I don't think that there's any silver bullet to the party's issues, but I do think there's an opportunity, especially with a perspective that comes from state or local government, and from a part of the country where Democrats absolutely should be winning races, and haven't been," he said in an interview with CNN.
Buttigieg joins a contest that has largely divided along the same lines as the party's 2016 primary -- with backers of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton supporting Labor Secretary Tom Perez, and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders rallying behind Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.
Buttigieg, who is 34 and openly gay, is a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar. He served as a Naval officer in Afghanistan. His only bid for statewide office has been a failed 2010 campaign for Indiana state treasurer.
However, he has won easily in South Bend, a manufacturing-heavy Rust Belt town that is home to Notre Dame University.
Buttigieg said he wants to move the party past a backward-looking proxy battle.
"I think we need to get past that as a party. Reliving 2016 is not really good for business for the Democratic Party," he said. "Obviously, we can learn from the past, but this needs to be about the future. We have much more important things to fight than each other."
He could help Democrats in a soul-searching phase as the party grapples with its loss of white working-class voters, which cost Clinton Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, pushing Donald Trump toward the presidency.
"This is exceptionally important: Speaking to one group of potential Democratic voters cannot mean abandoning another," Buttigieg said.
He pointed to his own experience in South Bend, a city that has a sizable minority population, even though a majority of its residents are white.
"We didn't pick one demographic over another. The point is, look, the core of our moral authority as a party is our defense of equality, fairness, things like voting rights," he said. "But we also are, I believe, motivated by values that are universal. I believe when we talk about fairness, we can do that in a way that appeals to all types of voters and all kinds of Americans. And I think not being afraid to talk about our values will resonate in places where we as a party have been struggling."
In addition to Buttigieg, Perez and Ellison, South Carolina Democratic chairman Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire state chairman Ray Buckley are also in the DNC chair's race.
Ellison and Perez each issued statements welcoming Buttigieg into the race. "Democrats deserve a vibrant conversation about the direction of our party," Perez said.
"Pete showed tremendous courage during his re-election campaign when he came out -- no easy thing to do in a red state like Indiana in the middle of an election," Ellison said.
The party is set to meet for its first regional forum in Phoenix next week.