Opinion: Uninspired by the crop of 2020 Democrats? Keep your eyes on Mayor Pete

Pete Buttigieg at a book-signing event in Chicago on Feb. 13.
(Joshua Lott / AFP / Getty Images)

The first time I heard about Pete Buttigieg — the mayor of South Bend, Ind. — was on Feb. 2. As I kvetched about the lackluster Democratic landscape, a Hoosier friend told me, “Keep an eye on Pete Buttigieg.”

Pete who?

My blind spot may have stemmed from still being zonked after covering the 2016 campaign (yes hi that’s true) or having a dim view of mayors as presidential candidates (a sitting mayor hasn’t received a major party’s presidential nomination since 1812 — and that guy lost). Then again, our current emperor-in-chief had never served in public office, so who knows what hits. Either way, as the weeks went on, I struggled to keep Buttigieg on my mental list of contenders. The national conversation was moving full speed: from Biden to Bernie, Booker to Beto, Kamala to Klobuchar, Warren to Schultz, and through the dozens of other potential or confirmed Trump challengers.

Buttigieg, who’s adopted the moniker “Mayor Pete” for facility (and because reporters keep bungling his last name), launched a 2020 exploratory committee on Jan. 23. But it took until this weekend for his campaign to fully break into the news cycle, as he qualified to participate in the early Democratic National Committee debates. (Faced with a sprawling field of presidential hopefuls, the DNC set terms for its first two debates this year: Candidates must either reach 1% in three of a particular set of polls or receive donations from 65,000 people in at least 20 states.)


It’ll take some maneuvering for conservatives to write Buttigieg off as just another spendy Bolshevik snowflake.

And why exactly does it put an actual spring in my step that a politician I’ve barely followed got enough donations to show up to a 10-person debate?

Is it because I learned everything there is to know about Mayor Pete in the last six seconds and am ready to lead his rhythmic clapping section? Absolutely not. But he’s made a hopeful splash in a largely dull, demented or compromised field. Things were quite a snooze before Saturday, what with my dear Liz Warren fatally wounding herself in the DNA fiasco, Kamala Harris trying to be cool, Joe Biden mounting his third run (as I yowled about here), Amy Klobuchar throwing binders, and Howard Schultz metaphorically walking into walls while blindfolded. Bernie Sanders, whatever else might be said about him, is nearly 80. Beto O’Rourke’s hot nerd charisma is wearing off fast.

Water, water, everywhere, and no drops I want to be POTUS.

If elected — and I fully appreciate that we’re 20 months away from that “if” — Buttigieg would become both the youngest and the first openly gay president in U.S. history. Buttigieg, now 37, has broken records before; when he took office as mayor of South Bend in 2012, he became the youngest mayor of a U.S. city with at least 100,000 residents. He came out publicly in an essay in the South Bend Tribune during his reelection campaign in 2015, writing that “for a conservative resident from a different generation, whose unease with social change is partly rooted in the impression that he doesn’t know anyone gay, perhaps a familiar face can be a reminder that we’re all in this together as a community.” His husband Chasten Buttigieg, a teacher, is often by his side.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute from L.A. Times Opinion »

What of Buttigieg’s politics? At a glance, they look pretty, pretty, pretty good from my progressive vantage point. He raised the minimum wage for South Bend city employees, set to patching the city’s potholes and spearheaded its “1,000 houses in 1,000 days” initiative, which restored or demolished abandoned homes. On the national level, Buttigieg supports the Green New Deal, single-payer healthcare (with an all-payer rate-setting transition) and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. What’s the current line in Vegas on whether a mayor whom the right will inevitably brand as a gay socialist can win the presidency?


That may well depend on whether millennials and Gen Z-ers, who will together comprise 37% of the 2020 electorate, show up to vote.

Plus, it’ll take some maneuvering for conservatives to write Buttigieg off as just another spendy Bolshevik snowflake. For one, Trump won Indiana by nearly 20 points; it’s not easily caricatured Connecticut or California. In 2014, Buttigieg served as an officer in Afghanistan, and he remains a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. Buttigieg has worked for corporate-friendly consulting firms such as McKinsey and the Cohen Group, founded by former Secretary of Defense (and moderate Republican) William Cohen.

Much of my initial Buttigieg interest is sparked by his willingness to challenge long-established political narratives (long-battled, too, including by Sanders, the subject of a reverent essay Buttigieg wrote in high school). Democrats “are not yet comfortable working in a vocabulary of ‘freedom,’ ” Buttigieg told the New York Times in 2016. “Conservatives talk about freedom. They mean it. But they’re often negligent about the extent to which things other than government make people unfree.” Language matters — and Buttigieg speaks like someone who realizes its power. He’s both plainspoken and fun to listen to. He’s got a touch of Obama, whose campaign he canvassed for in 2008. (In 2016, the former president included Buttigieg in a short list of Democrats to watch.) That’ll liven up the debates.

Between now and those debates, which start in June, you’ll want to learn Mayor Pete’s name. For the record, it’s pronounced BOOT-edge-edge.

Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a contributing writer to Opinion. Follow her on Twitter @velvetmelvis.