By Brandon Wolf
The residents of South Bend, Indiana, refer to Pete Buttigieg as Mayor Pete. It’s an affectionate nickname, and his constituents have good reason to love their mayor.
When he first took office in 2011, at the age of 29, South Bend was high on the list of dying Rust Belt cities. Today, the city is thriving with the help of Buttigieg’s innovative ideas and his ability to inspire people to work together to solve problems.
Buttigieg (pronounced BOOT-eh-jedge) was born and raised in South Bend, where both of his parents once taught at Notre Dame University. He was a typical Midwestern boy, with no great privileges of wealth or lineage.
What he has made of himself in just 35 years seems like it could only be possible in a novel or a movie. But it’s all quite real, and the future looks incredibly promising as his life continues to unfold.
A Young Admirer of the Kennedys
Born in 1982, Buttigieg became interested in politics at an early age because of his admiration for the Kennedy family. He has the easy poise and gentility of John Kennedy, the roll-up-the-sleeves earthiness of Robert Kennedy, and a deep belief in the progressive ideals that Ted Kennedy fought for during his long Senate career. Buttigieg also has a full head of thick hair that, like the Kennedy men, makes him look young and boyish. The friendly and involved youth attended South Bend’s St. Joseph High School and became his senior class’s president and valedictorian.
Just after graduating in 2000, Buttigieg was honored by Caroline Kennedy at a ceremony in the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. He had submitted an essay to the annual JFK Profiles in Courage Essay Contest, open to high school seniors, and his winning piece about the political courage of congressman Bernie Sanders demonstrated Buttigieg’s keen political instincts.
In the fall of 2000, Buttigieg was back in Boston to enroll at Harvard University. He graduated magna cum laude in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in history and literature.
While a student at Harvard, Buttigieg was president of the Harvard Institute of Politics’ Student Advisory Committee and worked on the Institute’s annual study of youth attitudes about politics. He was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa, considered to be the most prestigious honor society in America.
During his summers while in college, Buttigieg kept busy as an investigative intern at WMAQ-TV, Chicago’s NBC news affiliate. In 2002, he was an intern for Jill Long Thompson’s 2002 congressional campaign. After graduation in 2004, he spent several months working on senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign as a policy and research specialist.
Because of his academic achievement, Buttigieg was named a Rhodes scholar and given a post-graduate scholarship to Oxford University in England. In 2007, he received his first-class honors degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Oxford.
The World Awaits
After returning from England, Buttigieg could have simply rested on his laurels by entering the private sector and living in high style on a very comfortable salary. But the call to public service was the call he knew he should answer.
To prepare himself for that calling, he spent 2008 and 2009 in the private sector as a consultant for the McKinsey & Co. global management consulting firm that serves leading businesses, governments, non-governmental organizations, and not-for-profits, helping clients make lasting improvements to their performance. “I wanted to learn how money moves and data is mined most effectively,” he says.
In 2010, Buttigieg made his first move for political office as the Democratic Party’s candidate for Indiana state treasurer. Although Buttigieg lost to Republican incumbent Richard Mourdock, he garnered 37.5 percent of the vote in a state that voted mostly red that year.
A year later, Buttigieg ran for mayor of South Bend, and on November 8, 2011, he won with 74 percent of the vote. He took office on January 1, 2012, and at the age of 29 became the youngest mayor of a U.S. city with a population over 100,000.
Rolling up His Sleeves
Buttigieg brought innovative ideas to South Bend, including finding new uses for the giant Studebaker automobile factory that had been abandoned for decades. Mayor Pete pulled together business leaders from across the city, and inspired them to re-purpose the historic structure into a mix of office, commercial, residential, and storage space.
The St. Joseph River bridge in South Bend was just a functional structure before Mayor Pete pulled together a working group of artists and architects to transform it into a dazzling “River Lights” public art installation.
It bathes a cascading stretch of South Bend’s principal waterway in a rainbow of light that also illuminates the bridge’s arches at night. Large sculptures along the riverside walkway change colors as visitors walk by.
The charming light display has reinvigorated the city’s center with an influx of new restaurants and businesses. It has also increased business at the convention center located at the head of the walkway.
In February 2013, Buttigieg announced an ambitious effort to repair or demolish 1,000 vacant and abandoned houses in 1,000 days. The City met its goal about two months ahead of schedule.
“This was about making our neighborhoods stronger,” Buttigieg says. “When a house is collapsing next to you, your home loses value and your quality of life suffers. Fixing or removing these houses was the top priority I heard about [when I was] campaigning four years ago. Now we can turn our attention to long-term neighborhood growth.”
In 2009, Buttigieg was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve Intelligence Unit. He signed up for the Reserve as a result of his experiences while canvassing for Barack Obama in Iowa in 2008.
“So many times, I would knock and a child would come to the door—in my eyes, a child—and we’d get to talking, and this kid would be on his way to basic training,” Buttigieg remembers. “It was like this whole town was emptying itself out into the military.” He felt he should join the effort, too.
In 2013, Buttigieg was deployed to Afghanistan and served a seven-month tour of duty, earning the Joint Service Commendation Medal for his contributions to counterterrorism. A deputy mayor ran South Bend while Buttigieg took his unpaid military leave. When Buttigieg returned from his tour, he was met by a throng of residents at the airport, all extremely proud of their mayor.
Buttigieg has instituted data transparency in South Bend’s government, which has gained national acclaim. Imagine a city where all of the mayor’s emails are online for anyone to read.
Coming Out, a Boyfriend, and a Second Term
Buttigieg announced that he would seek a second term in November 2014. The Democratic Party primary was held in May 2015, and Buttigieg won with 78 percent of the vote. In November 2015, Buttigieg won his second term with over 80 percent of the vote in the general election.
During the 2015 primary, he wrote on op-ed for the South Bend newspaper just two weeks before the June 26 Supreme Court decision that established nationwide marriage equality. In the editorial, he wrote:
“I was well into adulthood before I was prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that I am gay. It took years of struggle and growth for me to recognize that it’s just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am.
“Putting something this personal on the pages of a newspaper does not come easy. We Midwesterners are instinctively private to begin with, and I’m not used to viewing this as anyone else’s business.
“But it’s clear to me that at a moment like this, being more open about it could do some good. For a local student struggling with her sexuality, it might be helpful for an openly gay mayor to send the message that her community will always have a place for her.”
Buttigieg says that while he doesn’t plan to be a poster boy for the LGBT movement, he doesn’t hide his life, either. His boyfriend, middle-school teacher Chasten Glezman, moved in with him this year in a house two blocks from Buttigieg’s parents.
Glezman sometimes accompanies the mayor to public events. In June 2016, they attended a local memorial service for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando.
The two met at an airport when Buttigieg was flying to a meeting and Glezman was welcoming exchange students arriving from abroad. They struck up a conversation, exchanged cards, and began seeing each other.
In 2015, Buttigieg was asked to come to the JFK Library for a second time to accept the annual New Frontier Award for innovative leadership. Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, Robert Kennedy’s grandson, introduced Buttigieg with this speech:
“When you read about the lives altered in the streets of South Bend, I know that not only has President Kennedy’s belief in public service been passed down from generation to generation, but today it is stronger than ever.
“My wife and I are about to have our first daughter. I know because of the work Pete has inspired, she will grow up in a brighter world. He is a role model not just for me and my family, but for everyone.
“Despite awards and media attention, his focus has never strayed from his hometown. He is leading South Bend with a vision of effectiveness and transparency, improving lives and fortunes. South Bend has become a national model for an open data policy which provides multiple channels for communication.”
During his acceptance speech, Buttigieg said he was humbled to be there, accepting the award from a family that has done so much to inspire him. He recalled winning the previous Kennedy award in 2000 and being totally wide-eyed as he met the very people he had admired since his youth.
To further enhance his gilded résumé, Buttigieg learned to speak passable Arabic as part of his cybersecurity training. And as an accomplished musician, he agreed to be the piano soloist with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in 2013 for a special performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
A Run for the DNC Chair
Buttigieg was shocked at the outcome of the 2016 presidential race. He stayed neutral during the primary, but endorsed Clinton just before the general election.
Once the dust settled and Democrats were scrambling to put their party back together, Buttigieg felt he should join the race for the party’s new DNC chair. There are 11 announced candidates vying for the position. On February 26, 2017, the 447 members of the DNC will meet in Atlanta and vote. The candidate with at least 224 votes will be the new chair.
It’s been a busy time for Buttigieg, who attended the four regional DNC Future Forums in Phoenix, Houston, Chicago and Baltimore during January and February of this year. The weekend forums gave DNC members—and the public—an opportunity to compare the candidates and their views.
Buttigieg was considered a dark horse candidate before headlines started appearing that read: “This 35-year-old Mayor from Indiana Is Wowing National Democrats” (New Republic); “Indiana Mayor Makes Case for a Fresh Face at the DNC” (Washington Times); “Could a Small-Town Indiana Mayor Be the Next DNC Chair?” (Christian Science Monitor).
The Christian Science Monitor reports that the leading DNC candidates are Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison (who supported Bernie Sanders) and former secretary of labor Tom Perez (who was on Clinton’s short list for vice president). Buttigieg says that these two figures actually represent a proxy fight that is continuing the bitterness of the presidential primary. He believes a fresh face and a new beginning are needed—and that he is the one who can provide those things.
During the DNC’s Future Forum in Houston on January 28, Buttigieg tended to be more low-key than many of his opponents who utilized fiery rhetoric to whip up the audience. Buttigieg is capable of emphatic oratory, but he prefers to maintain a calm, quiet, confident demeanor. He answers questions honestly and transparently, and offers simple, common-sense solutions.
But Buttigieg also delighted his Houston audience with a few zingers delivered in his own understated way, including this Donald Trump critique: “He took a jackhammer to American moral authority, and on the seventh day, he did not rest.”
Glezman supervised Buttigieg’s candidate table in Houston with the warmth and patience of a teacher. The table was staffed by one of the largest volunteer groups at the event. Volunteers came from South Bend, but also from Dallas and Jersey City—all of them inspired by Buttigieg. The mostly millennial volunteers answered questions with real solutions rather than platitudes. They are eager, savvy, and genuine supporters.
Buttigieg was seen talking with former Houston mayor Annise Parker during the lunch break, possibly comparing notes on running a city. Parker looked relaxed as she enjoyed her semi-anonymity at the event.
If Buttigieg wins the DNC chair position, he will resign from his job as mayor of South Bend. As chair, it seems probable that he would attract millennials to the ranks of the Democratic Party. He would be a fresh, young face—unfettered by the past—leading a party eager for inspiration and a new focus.
Buttigieg feels strongly about rebuilding the Democrats’ 50 state parties. He promised to travel to all 50 states as the DNC chair, and has proposed auditing local parties’ digital capabilities and granting funds to bring the lagging state parties up to speed with electronic communications, data management, and fundraising.
MSNBC correspondent Ari Melber, amazed by Buttigieg’s résumé, asked him why he wants to be the DNC Chair instead of running for governor or senator. Buttigieg replied, “I think it’s important to go where you are needed the most.”
Democrats are at their lowest point in nearly a century in holding state and local offices ranging from governorships and state legislatures to local school boards. Since 2009, over 1,000 of these elected positions have gone red, and Buttigieg wants to remedy that bleak scenario.
Whatever the outcome of the DNC chair race is, Buttigieg is attracting notice and visibility. Democrats will come to appreciate his style, his innovative ideas, his ability to unite people, and his record of accomplishment. His future appears to be filled with possibilities as the nation takes note of Buttigieg’s abilities.
And for the nation’s LGBT citizens, there will also be a special feeling of pride that the Democrats’ rising star also happens to be a member of their community.
Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.