SOUTH BEND, Ind.: Pete Buttigieg, the young Midwestern mayor whose presidential bid has been an unlikely early focus of attention from Democratic voters and donors, kicked off his campaign Sunday and proclaimed his hometown’s revival was the answer to sceptics who ask how he has the “audacity” to see himself in the White House.
At a rally inside a partly rebuilt factory, once owned by the automaker Studebaker and now being turned into glass-sheathed offices for tech and other businesses, Buttigieg said, “I ran for mayor in 2011 knowing nothing like Studebaker would ever come back, but that we would, our city would, if we had the courage to reimagine our future.”
If elected, Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Rhodes scholar and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, would represent a series of historic firsts: the youngest president ever and the first who is openly gay.
He said he was motivated to run despite his youth because of an urgency to correct the course of the Trump administration on climate change, health care and immigration. “This is one of those rare moments between whole eras in the life of our nation,” Buttigieg said, adding, “The moment we live in compels us to act.”
He painted a picture of a hopeful future rooted in Midwestern values, contrasting his focus on a better life in 2030, 2040 and 2054 — the year he would be the same age as President Donald Trump is today — with what he called Trump’s appeal to “resentment and nostalgia.”
Though Buttigieg is a political progressive, his main message is the claim to leadership of millennial Americans, those he says will be on “the business end” of climate change, who grew up with school shootings and who supplied most of the troops in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Little known just two months ago, Buttigieg has won support and financial backing through a blitz of television interviews in which he has given earnest, nuanced responses that make liberal points without raising the temperature.
But he has also engaged some of the left’s big targets, accusing Vice President Mike Pence of religious hypocrisy for standing faithfully behind Trump and for seeking to erode gay rights.
And he makes much of being the only candidate to have served on active duty in the military. Buttigieg took a seven-month leave during his first mayoral term to serve as a Navy Reserves intelligence officer in Afghanistan. He mentioned “the 119 trips I took outside the wire” guarding or driving a vehicle. The men and women he escorted “cared about whether my M-4 was locked and loaded,” he said, “not whether I was going home to a girlfriend or a boyfriend.”
Videos showcasing his assorted talents have been online hits, including him speaking in Norwegian and playing piano with singer Ben Folds and the South Bend Symphony. By some measures, his candidacy has generated more social media interest than any other 2020 Democratic hopeful.
Once considered the longest of long shots, he has seen a surge in fund-raising and in polls. His campaign reported raising $7 million in the first quarter of the year, a more than respectable figure. Last week, polls of Iowa and New Hampshire showed Buttigieg trailing only Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, and ahead of better-known candidates including Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke.
As he ascends from flavour-of-the-month to widely visible contender for the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg’s record as a two-term mayor is beginning to come under scrutiny. Apart from his biography — he has credentials from Harvard University, the University of Oxford and McKinsey & Co consulting — Buttigieg’s candidacy rests on his claim of reversing economic free-fall in South Bend, once an industrial powerhouse that in 2011 was named by Newsweek one of America’s top 10 “dying cities.”
Today, businesses and pedestrians have returned to parts of downtown, including the new offices in the former Studebaker factory.
“I’m glad you can see this for yourself, because this city’s story is a big part of why I am doing this,” he said, speaking in an unrestored part of the factory where the vaulted roof leaked on a rainy day.
Not everyone has benefited from the city’s post-recession growth. Some black and Hispanic residents, who account for 40 per cent of the population, feel left out.
“It’s hard for me to say this is a turnaround city,” said Regina Williams-Preston, who is running in municipal elections to replace Buttigieg.
“We’re all excited about what’s happening downtown — the black community, poor folks, Hispanic people,” she said. But prosperity has not flowed equally. “Over half the people in our community who are working — it’s their dollars that you’re investing — are not feeling a return on their investment.”