I have to admit, when my Congressman Don Beyer endorsed Pete Buttigieg right out of the gate in April of this year, I was kind of annoyed at him. Because here we had a whole field of highly diverse and experienced candidates, who were senators and congresspeople and governors, people who’d served the public for decades to reach this pinnacle of running for President of the United States. Half a dozen women, some of whom are women of color; a Latino; a Black man who had not only been mayor of a large city, he’d also gone on to the Senate. And yet Congressman Beyer, before a single debate had been heard, endorsed a 37-year-old, white male mayor of a small town.
But that is exactly Pete’s effect on people—people are inspired by Pete the way they were by JFK and Obama. They see in Pete the hope of the younger generation, building a better future for America. Which explains why he has steadily climbed in the polls and why a recent Quinnipiac poll has him in second place nationally and an Emerson poll has him in second place in New Hampshire.
Mayor Pete was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, where he was elected mayor in 2011, and re-elected in 2015. His father emigrated from Malta, and taught literature at the University of Notre Dame for almost 30 years. South Bend is a typical Midwest town, whose economy revolved around several large manufacturing companies—including in this case the Studebaker car maker. The company ceased production before Pete was born, in 1963, with numerous other manufacturing companies closing over the next decade, leading to a town with shuttered and abandoned factory buildings, high unemployment and poverty, and an increase of outmigration and crime. Voters from “rust belt” towns like this, frustrated with the lack of solutions to their troubles regardless of which party was in the White House, voted for Trump in 2016, and likely won him the election. Winning back these voters is an imperative, and definitely a plus for Pete.
Pete Buttigieg is also one of only two candidates in the 2020 Presidential field with military experience. He joined the military in 2007, and became an ensign in the Navy Reserve in 2009. He said what prompted him to enlist was that he had observed (while in Iowa campaigning for Obama) how many people in rural communities were serving compared to elsewhere. In 2014, he took leave from his duties as mayor to deploy to Afghanistan, where he was assigned for seven months. He was honorably discharged in 2017. I think people who have served in the military have a unique perspective on how America’s largest “industry” functions; additionally, military voters are likely to support having a Commander in Chief who’s actually served.
Several things about Pete have really impressed me. Perhaps the most important is that he seems to be running a very solid campaign, with a deep and wide grassroots network of volunteers, fundraising on par with a top tier candidate (including receiving more dollars from Virginia residents than any other 2020 Democratic primary candidate), and consistent messaging. When his campaign early on released a design toolkit for use by grassroots organizations with a color scheme and retro-chic graphic tools that told his personal story and reflected his Midwest values, it was obvious Pete was going to be a contender. Naturally, I have the most exposure to Virginians for Pete, who’ve been hosting a variety of events and building a community of supporters for months, and who made incredibly quick work of collecting petition signatures to get Pete on the ballot in Virginia before any other candidate. It’s also great to see Pete’s campaign scoop up Ayodele Okeowu (Edwin Santana, Mo Seifeldein, Jess Foster campaigns) and Barrett Fife (Delegate Mark Levine, Justin Wilson, Marc Solomon campaigns) for their team; and during our campaign to take the majority in the legislature, we saw Pete come to Virginia multiple times to support our candidates.
One of Mayor Pete’s strongest issue areas is that of repairing our democracy. I’ve found myself saying over and over since 2016, “I had no idea our democracy was this fragile.” And Pete seems to absolutely get it too. He’s proposed reforming the court system to depoliticize it, including reforming the Supreme Court to have ten politically-confirmed justices alongside five additional justices promoted from the lower courts by unanimous agreement of the other ten. He wants to end gerrymandering of Congressional districts by creating statewide independent redistricting commissions. He supports the National Popular Vote Compact, to eliminate the Electoral College, and supports immediate electoral representation for Puerto Rico and statehood for the residential portion of Washington DC. He has strong proposals for a modern Voting Rights Act, supports a constitutional amendment (if necessary) to overturn Citizens United, as well as a public finance option for campaigns.
Another aspect of Pete Buttigieg’s policy focus that especially impresses me is his plan to “unleash the potential of rural America.” This includes very specific and detailed ideas to create regional innovation clusters using government grants to bring together local entrepreneurs; using agricultural technology and innovation to give rural communities the opportunity to lead on climate change through carbon sequestration and biofuels; by immediately addressing broadband connectivity gaps, skills gap, and teacher shortages; and by strengthening the rights of rural workers through stronger antitrust laws and labor laws. According to the Roanoke Times Editorial Board, Pete Buttigieg “demonstrates a more sophisticated understanding of the rural economy than all the other candidates put together.” Easing the struggles of rural America will be critical over the next several years, after Trump’s trade war with China has destroyed the income of family farmers.
Mayor Pete doesn’t do quite as well on addressing the climate crisis–according to Greenpeace’s analysis, Pete Buttigieg’s climate plan receives only a B rating, because his plan “relies on risky tax incentives for carbon capture technology that could perpetuate fossil fuel pollution. In addition, he has not committed to end exports of oil, coal, and liquified natural gas and hold polluters accountable for their contributions to the climate crisis.”
His “Medicare for All Who Want It” plan relies on Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” of capitalism to move health care in the United States from the current health care system plus a public Medicare option, to Medicare for All, under the assumption that the private insurance industry will be pressured by the market to cut costs and offer provide better service to compete with the Medicare option. His education plan would make college tuition-free for “those who need it,” and while he does not support cancelling all student debt, he does support the public service loan forgiveness program, and income-based repayment plans. In short, he’s a fairly moderate Democrat, with some innovative ideas.
But he’s also the least experienced candidate of the field. Imagine if Sherman Lea, Sr. were the Democratic nominee. Oh, you don’t know who he is? He’s the mayor of Roanoke, a city of similar size to South Bend. Prior to Trump, the only people to become president of the United States without first serving in the White House, Cabinet, Congress or as a state governor were Presidents Eisenhower, Grant, Taylor and Washington (all of whom had fairly significant military careers before becoming president); no mayor has ever become president. It’s hard to know, obviously, how much this matters, and there were those (including Hillary Clinton) who argued in 2008 that Barack Obama didn’t have enough experience to be president. But watching Donald Trump fumble around recklessly like a bull in a china shop for the last three years certainly isn’t much of an endorsement for electing someone with less experience.
This ties in, too, to what is perhaps Pete Buttigieg’s biggest weakness currently—his inability to connect with or convince Black voters to support him. Because his campaign in a way epitomizes the systemic racism (and sexism) built into our society: why IS it that a young, inexperienced white small town mayor has been such a darling of the press, with thousands of articles written about him, and numbers of network media mentions that routinely exceed (see here, here, and here) those for the significantly more experienced people of color running for president? Why has the press mentioned that Mayor Pete was a Rhodes Scholar 596 times, while only mentioning that Cory Booker was a Rhodes Scholar 79 times? Is it implicit bias that causes people to find him SO impressive and inspiring?
And then, there are his own missteps. Following the shooting of a Black man by a South Bend policeman, the Black community of South Bend criticized its mayor for his handling of the situation and his failure to meet with the family—but more, they said this was part of a pattern of the mayor’s policies that have left people of color behind. When Pete Buttigieg released his Douglass Plan—which is, in fact, a strong set of policy proposals to address racial disparities in housing access, education, health care, entrepreneurship opportunities, and more—the rollout suffered from multiple troubles. First, it was released with a list of 400 South Carolinian “endorsers”—but two of the three top line Black politicians listed did not in fact agree to endorse the plan, and 40% of the other endorsers were White. And then, in an unfortunate error, the stock photo his campaign used to decorate this plan for “Black America” was actually taken in Kenya, of a Kenyan woman and her child. It’s not clear whether he can win the love of Black voters—you often have to squint really hard in photos of his events to find anyone attending who’s not White. And while Black voters resoundingly say they will vote for whichever Democrat is on the ticket, low turnout of Black voters in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and other Midwest urban cities may have cost Hillary Clinton the election in 2016.
I’ll close with one entertaining thought I have had about Pete Buttigieg—under any other circumstances, his relative inexperience would be a huge general election liability. His opponent would pound the message of his inexperience to the voting public. But ironically, he would (most likely) face the one opponent who couldn’t make any use of this criticism, because Trump had no experience himself. In fact, a Pete/Trump debate would be such an intellectual and temperamental mismatch, it’s hard to even imagine, but would be fun to watch.