Pete Buttigieg: Young Democratic candidate defying categorisation

The gay, Christian mayor of South Bend, Indiana is widening his appeal among voters

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana,  talks to supporters  in Rock Hill, South Carolina on Sunday. Photograph: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, talks to supporters in Rock Hill, South Carolina on Sunday. Photograph: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

 

Dressed impeccably in a crisp white shirt and perfectly knotted tie, Pete Buttigieg jumps nimbly onto the makeshift outdoor stage in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Close to 1,000 people have gathered to hear the mayor of South Bend, Indiana who has emerged as one of the most talked-about candidates in the Democratic race for president. In a crowded Democratic field, he has managed to stand out from the pack, his personal story and distinctive political stance evading categorisation.

At 37 he is the youngest candidate running for president. If elected, he would also be America’s first openly gay president. He married his partner, Chasten, an elementary school teacher, last year.

But, in addition to his liberal credentials, the young mayor has attributes that typically appeal to conservatives.

After working for McKinsey, he joined the Navy Reserve. He later took a leave of absence as mayor of South Bend when he was deployed to Afghanistan. He is also a practicing Christian, and one of the few Democratic candidates to talk openly about their faith.

Born and raised in Indiana, Mayor Pete – as he is colloquially known – is in tune with the American midwest. However, his homely, hometown instincts can sometimes mask a formidable intellect: he studied at Harvard before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and is fluent in several languages.

This idiosyncratic blend of midwestern liberalism has resonated since he announced his candidacy in January.

Polls place him at the top of the so-called second-tier candidates in the crowded Democratic field, behind frontrunners Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but ahead of party stalwarts like senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.

Polling extremely well

Worryingly for his rivals, he is polling extremely well in Iowa, the first state in the nation to select a Democratic candidate. A RealClearPolitics poll for Iowa puts him at 15.8 per cent, just behind Biden and Warren. He has opened more offices in Iowa than any other candidate.

Mayor Pete’s steady rise has been bolstered by a formidable fundraising machine. He raised $24.8 million in the second quarter of this year, more than any of his rivals, and $19.1 million in the third quarter – an impressive fundraising haul for a candidate who has never held national or statewide office.

Here at Rock Hill, supporters have been queuing for hours to hear from the Indiana mayor.

26-year-old Charles Deloach was first in line, queuing for more than three hours. He is a true Buttigieg supporter. 

“I believe that this is the best person to lead the country in the direction it needs to go. His resume is impressive – Harvard, Oxford, all those languages – but he is also a good person who is honest and can speak to people who don’t necessarily agree with him.  One of the biggest problems facing the country right now is the division between people, so it’s important.”

He references the fact that Buttigieg is one of the few Democrats to have agreed to an interview with Fox News – a decision that he believes shows his willingness to engage with all Americans.

I’m running to be the president that can pick up the pieces and bring this country back together

Others are waiting to learn more about a candidate who lacks the national profile of figures like Biden, Warren or Sanders. John and Russ have travelled from Greensboro, North Carolina. “I like what I’ve seen so far in the debates, particularly his views on healthcare,” says John. Russ also believes that he could be a good alternative to Joe Biden. “I have a lot of respect for Mr Biden,” he says, “but still . . .” he trails off.

Political pragmatist

As he takes to the stage, Buttigieg instantly connects with the crowd. His message is subtle but well-crafted: that he is a political pragmatist who can connect with Americans of all persuasion.  

“The sun is going to come up over a country that is going to be even more divided, even more torn up over politics than we are right now,” he says of next year’s election. “Leadership is going to matter more than ever. I’m running to be the president that can pick up the pieces and bring this country back together,” he adds, to cheers.

Throughout his 20-minute stump speech and question-and-answer session, Buttigieg brandishes his credentials as a political centrist, the culmination of an ideological journey that has seen him track closer to the centre in recent months.

Neither Elizabeth Warren nor Joe Biden are mentioned, but he jabs at his main rivals nonetheless. On Medicare for All, Elizabeth Warren’s bold plan to abolish private health insurance, he says his policy is “medicare for all who want it”, vowing not to force any one to give up their health insurance.

Similarly, he brushes off questions about his age, a veiled reference to 76-year-old Joe Biden, pointing to young leaders such as French president Emmanuel Macron and Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, and arguing that all successful Democratic presidential candidates in recent history were perceived as outside shots who ultimately won the White House.

But while Buttigieg is a hero to the true believers gathered here in Rock Hill holding “Boot Edge Edge” and “South Carolina for Pete” signs, he is also facing formidable challenges.

Clear problem

Buttigieg’s poor polling among African-Americans is a clear problem for his candidacy. Among the 1000 or so people who have gathered for his rally in Rock Hill, only a handful are African-Americans – in a state where the majority of Democratic voters are black.

In the AME Zion church in downtown Rock Hill, a five-minute drive from his downtown rally, the atmosphere is very different as the congregation prepares for its Sunday service and annual conference. Buttigieg’s appearance at the church is one of several black outreach events on the mayor’s schedule during this three-day campaign trip to South Carolina as he tries to tap into the African-American vote.

As the congregation prepares for their service, most of the worshippers say they have never heard of the young mayor. One person they have heard of, however, is Joe Biden. Flyers with “Joe 2020 – our best days still lie ahead” adorn a table in the church foyer. Biden has campaigned here several times, and the members of this church still remember him.

“Pete who?” asks Margaret Holley, from nearby Fall Mill, as she gathers with choir members outside the church door. “Joe Biden’s my man,” she says, as she extols the virtues of a man who she says has done so much for senior Americans and people from her community.

I’ve a soft spot for Ireland and obviously the whole city of South Bend, the University of Notre Dame does too

As Mayor Pete enters the church, bible in hand, he joins the procession entering the church. In his address to the congregation he sets out his experience as a mayor, and talks to some of the problems facing the black community – poor maternal health records, gun crime, addiction – eliciting applause. He also makes oblique reference to what may be a problem for his candidacy among some church-going African-American denominations: his sexuality. Focus group research commissioned by the Buttigieg campaign suggested that some black voters in South Carolina may be uncomfortable with a gay man as president.

Deep faith

“I know what it is to find acceptance where you least expect it,” he tells the congregation, as he highlights his own deep faith. “God has been good to me.”

Biden’s outreach in states such as South Carolina may pay off down the line, if Buttigieg emerges successfully from the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses. In the meantime his campaign is ensuring that he visits as many corners of America as possible. Buttigieg even has a word for Irish-American voters, taking some time to speak to The Irish Times during his weekend whistle-stop tour through South Carolina. As the mayor of South Bend, where the historically Irish-American University of Notre Dame is located, he is well aware of the power of Irish-America.

“I’ve a soft spot for Ireland and obviously the whole city of South Bend, the University of Notre Dame does too,” he says with a smile. “We’ve been honoured in the past to host the Taoiseach in South Bend on the campus and it’s a really important and fruitful relationship,” he adds, noting that, with Brexit, it is “all the more important for us to make sure that our relationship with Ireland is strong”

With that he is off to his next campaign stop – a three-day bus tour across northern Iowa next week – as Mayor Pete pledges to convince Democratic voters that he can become the man to lead America.

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