South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is trying to make history.
Should he win the Democratic presidential nomination and defeat President Donald Trump in 2020, Buttigieg, 37, would be the youngest (and first millennial) president in US history, the first candidate to go straight from the mayor’s office to the White House, and the first out gay president.
But Buttigieg, who is known around town as “Mayor Pete,” isn’t getting ahead of himself: He knows he’s a long shot for the White House. In a recent Monmouth University poll, only 14% of Democrats and those that lean Democrat could form an opinion of him and 58% said they had never heard of him.
Buttigieg (boot-edge-edge) is already getting to work introducing himself to voters. He’s in Iowa this weekend for the first time since announcing his exploratory committee in January. Buttigieg is hoping that as he becomes better known, his story, and the story of South Bend, will be his key to victory.
“If we look like we’re the protectors of the old order, if we look like we’re here to restore normalcy, whatever that means, then in a way we’re committing the same sin of the Trump campaign, which is to tell people to look for greatness in the wrong places,” Buttigieg said in his first interview with CNN since launching his exploratory committee.
Buttigieg first won the mayor’s office at 29 after a decade away – first at Harvard, then as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a consultant at McKinsey and as an officer in the Navy Reserve. In South Bend, where he has been mayor since 2012, Buttigieg describes the boom and bust history of the northern Indiana city, a story similar to many cities in the industrial Midwest. A big part of that past is the Studebaker car company plant. Left shuttered and vacant since the 1960s, it long stood as a symbol of the city’s decay. Now Buttigieg serves as something of a tour guide of the massive plant as he’s working with private business to turn it into a technology hub.
“We were honest about the fact that nothing ever resembling, for example, the Studebaker car company was ever going to come back to the city. That wasn’t coming back. But we were,” he said, drawing an unmistakable parallel between his approach to the plant and his message to voters.
“For us, it’s a story about how we look to the future,” he said. “We’re not trying to retrieve what was there before. But we are taking elements of our past and then fashioning them into something new.”
One of the questions Buttigieg faces at almost every stop is whether he has the experience to be the president. A recent CNN poll found that 81% of Democrats and those that lean Democrat said having the right experience to be president was extremely or very important to their decision on who to back for the party’s nomination. Buttigieg certainly doesn’t shy away from the question. He actually welcomes it.
“It’s a fair question and I think we have a pretty good answer,” he said. “The question of age was resolved by the founders in the constitution. The question of experience I think is actually one of the most important questions that I want to answer. The background of a mayor of a city of any size is a background of somebody who on one hand is an executive and on the other hand is very close to the ground. I don’t have to go on a tour to find out what’s happening in middle America. I just go to Target.”
His experience as a mayor in Indiana also pitted him against Vice President Mike Pence, the former governor of his state. Buttigieg was critical of Pence’s decision as governor in 2015 to sign into law a controversial religious freedom bill that critics said could be used to justify discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Buttigieg doesn’t mince words when it comes to Pence.
“My personal interactions with him have always been very civil and very decent, but it’s also simply true that politically he’s a fanatic and he damaged our city and our state through choices that his social extremism led him to make,” he said.
Yet before Buttigieg can think about taking on Pence and Trump, he must first face a crowded field of Democrats who are either seeking the party’s nomination or considering a run in 2020. Many are better known (Biden, Warren, Sanders). There are other former mayors and could be even more (Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Mike Bloomberg). There is even another veteran (Buttigieg served in Afghanistan in 2014) in Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. And another Midwesterner, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is expected to enter the race on Sunday.
The mayor says he views his fellow Democrats as competitors, not opponents.
“I think when you’re viewing others as opponents you’re looking to find their weaknesses. When you’re looking at competitors, you think about how everybody brings something to the table,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I’m definitely the only left-handed, Maltese-American, Episcopalian, millennial, gay mayor in the race. So I’ve got that lane all to myself.”
Buttigieg came out in 2015 in the midst of his re-election race for mayor with a newspaper op-ed titled ‘Why coming out matters.” He went on to win with 80% of the vote. The history of his White House bid is not lost on him but Buttigieg makes clear he doesn’t want the possibility of being the first gay president to define his campaign.
“Being gay is part of who I am and I’m aware of what it represents to be that kind of first elected official to try to do this who’s out,” he says. “At the same time, ultimately, I want to be evaluated based on the ideas that I bring to the table. It’s kind of like being mayor. If I’m plowing the snow and filling in potholes then I’m a good mayor and if we fail to do that, I’m not. And it’s got almost nothing to do with whether when I come home it’s to a husband or to a wife.”
Buttigieg married his husband, Chasten, eight months ago. He invokes his relationship on the trail, telling potential caucus-goers in Iowa on Friday, “My marriage is the most important thing in my life. It exists by the grace of a single vote on the US Supreme Court. It is one of the reasons why I feel so intimately why politics matters.”
Buttigieg and his husband sat down with CNN for their first interview together.
“The reason I fell in love with Pete is because he’s the same person on the trail or at home,” Chasten Buttigieg said. “I’m really excited for the country to get to know him on a much larger scale because he’s just a breath of fresh air.”
Like with any married couple, the Buttigiegs didn’t take much prompting to acknowledge their spouse isn’t perfect. The Mayor is a bit too loose with food expiration dates and a bit of a hoarder when it comes to his old corduroy pants, according to Chasten. And in return, the Mayor made it clear that he’s the only one that folds any laundry in their house. All of this playing out while their new dog, Buddy, tried multiple times to steal their attention and their lunch (brazenly climbing on the dining room table as everyone watched). Then there was Truman, the other dog in the family, who kept quiet watch from his perch under the piano.
While all of that is just normal life at home for the Buttigiegs, they acknowledge the power of the image of a gay married couple on the national political stage.
“We have talked about what it would have meant to either one of us when we were young to see that,” Mayor Buttigieg said.
He added, “It’s not lost on me that at no point in the last, probably, a hundred years would somebody like me be taken even a little bit seriously. Something’s different right now and I’m not going to miss this moment.”