Pete Buttigieg speaks with Bridgette Bissell, the supporter who inspired his stump speech.
Donald Judd, CNN
Pete Buttigieg speaks with Bridgette Bissell, the supporter who inspired his stump speech.
Clinton, Iowa CNN —  

The way Pete Buttigieg tells it, he first realized “this campaign’s getting somewhere” when he met Bridgette Bissell at a house party in Muscatine, Iowa.

“Because of your campaign, I feel like I can be myself,” the 16-year-old, who has autism, told Buttigieg after his remarks. “I can go to school and talk about what I believe in, and I don’t have to be ashamed of who I am.”

Since that meeting, Buttigieg has shared that story on the trail on stops in New Hampshire and South Carolina. But his stop here in Clinton on Tuesday, as part of his bus tour through the state, was the first time Buttigieg reunited with the young supporter.

“This is a very special appearance because I’m being reunited with somebody whose story I’ve been sharing lately,” Buttigieg told the audience. “And I’m proud to know that a campaign can help her feel like she can stand up tall and be who she is. Because that means that, long before the first vote is even cast, we are creating that kind of culture of belonging that every one of our supporters can spread, that everyone who is here can go out and spread to others, to let everybody know where you fit.”

Bissell said Buttigieg sharing their meeting on the trail has changed her life, too.

“Seeing someone just important, talk about it and all of that, it really makes me feel validated,” Bissell told CNN Tuesday. “And I really hope that it helps validate other people with autism and other disabilities and things like that to be themselves too.”

Bissell’s mother, Suzanne, has found herself moved by Buttigieg’s campaign too.

“For him to have seen the light that we always have seen in Bridget is pretty amazing,” Suzanne Bissell told CNN. “To not only hear her and listen to her, but then to remember it. I mean, he sees thousands of people.”

Bissell, who homeschools her daughter, says she’s proud of her daughter’s courage.

“We used to practice with looking people in the eye and she now has the confidence to talk to Pete, to a presidential candidate, and to admit her scariest secret ever, that she has autism. She had never told anybody publicly until that day that she had it. And so, it’s huge.”

Buttigieg invited the Bissells on board his campaign bus after his Clinton town hall for a tour. There, he chatted with his young supporter, and they bonded over their shared love of music, including the clarinet, which Buttigieg played in high school and Bridgette Bissell enjoys.

“It obviously means a lot to know that the things that she’s going through in life are easier,” Buttigieg told reporters after his campaign stop in Clinton. “That it’s better because of what we’re doing. And I think in many ways it reminds us why we’re doing it.”

“It was really, really touching to talk to obviously see Bridgette, but also to talk to her mom about what this means. And it’s also a reminder about how much more is at stake in the presidency than just policy. I mean, policy is a huge dimension of what government is about. But it’s not the only thing the presidency is responsible for. Just by virtue of being the most visible person in the country, you can help or harm so many people in so many ways.”

For her part, Bridgette Bissell is excited to have shaped a presidential campaign with her own story.

“That makes me feel so proud, and love, and validated, because I struggle a lot with doubts, with doubts about myself,” she told CNN. “The reason why I support him is that he shows everybody’s voice is important. It doesn’t matter who you love, what your gender is, anything, how, what your ability level is. It doesn’t matter. You have a voice and it matters.”

As for what’s next for the Bissells? They’re all in for Buttigieg now, Suzanne Bissell says. She hails from El Paso, Texas, the hometown of another 2020 Democratic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, but after meeting Buttigieg, “there was no other candidate” for her.

“I’ve never been political ever, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help him,” she told CNN. “Like we’re going to have a party at our house for him and invite friends. That’s not something I usually do. I’m kind of a private, I don’t like to talk about politics with friends, but I’m willing to do it for him.”