The mayor of a small city in Indiana has emerged from the pack of candidates seeking to become Democratic National Committee chair with a promise to make the party viable in America’s heartland, following the party’s 2016 election losses.
Pete Buttigieg, the 35-year-old, two-term gay mayor of South Bend, Ind., said in a sit-down interview with the Washington Blade that his experience as a local official from the Midwest is what’s needed to lead Democrats to victory.
“For a party that really needs to reconnect across our 50-plus states and territories, I think I’m in a better position than most to deliver on that based on my experience, based on my bread and butter, which is local government and political organizing,” Buttigieg said.
Along with New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley, Buttigieg is one of two candidates in the mix who could become the first openly gay DNC chair. Buttigieg, however, downplayed that potential distinction.
“I want to be, of course, a chair for everybody,” Buttigieg said. “I think that we’re a party that has stood up for fairness, has stood up for freedom and I think the LGBT community has seen a lot of the most urgent issues around that in the last few years.”
Representing Millennials in the race for DNC chair, Buttigieg was once a dark horse candidate, but has quickly risen to prominence and won a significant boost after a recent endorsement from former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Among his credentials are an education at Harvard University, studying at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and service in the Afghanistan in the Navy Reserve. Buttigieg came out as gay in 2015 in an essay published in the South Bend Tribune days before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality nationwide.
Buttigieg was serving as mayor during outrage and intense media coverage after then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence — now vice president of the United States — signed into law a “religious freedom” bill that enabled anti-LGBT discrimination.
“The thing about Mike Pence is, he’s a super-nice guy, who just genuinely believes this stuff,” Buttigieg said. “He operates from a different reality than the rest of us operate from. He’s written that cigarettes don’t kill, he thinks climate change is made up. He must assume that people get up in the morning one day and decide to be gay.”
Although the White House has said President Trump is “respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights,” Buttigieg said LGBT people need only look at the president’s immigration policies to know that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“No one who specializes in harming vulnerable groups can be regarded as a friend to the LGBT community even if we’re not the group he’s harming at the moment,” Buttigieg said. “And I would also say I do not believe that he cares about the LGBT community because I do not believe that he cares about anything at all.”
Chris Hillmann, chair of the New Jersey LGBT Democratic Caucus, is among Buttigieg’s supporters and said being a Democratic mayor from a “red” state makes him “a great choice to lead our party.”
“He is someone from outside Washington with a different set of ideas and connections to real people and knows what they need to hear from Democratic candidates,” Hillmann said. “His being a gay soldier who speaks seven languages and won re-election with 80 percent of the vote just makes his all around package even more impressive. As we get closer to the vote in Atlanta I think more people will see that we don’t need a rerun of the Hillary versus Bernie campaign. We need a fresh start from the next generation of political leaders and it’s time for the DNC to embrace the future.”
The crowed field to become the next DNC chair includes Buckley, former Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The election for chair will take place at the DNC’s winter meeting in Atlanta, scheduled for Feb. 23-26.
The Washington Blade’s full interview with Pete Buttigieg follows:
Washington Blade: Let’s talk about the DNC race. What do you think you have to offer the DNC that other candidates aren’t offering?
Pete Buttigieg: I think I’m in the best position to deliver the changes that everybody wants to see. Everybody’s talking about a fresh start. Why not put in a fresh, new leader? We’re all talking about competing in “red” and “purple” states. I’ve been winning elections in Indiana. We’re all talking about empowering a new generation. I’m a Millennial candidate. We’re all talking about the solutions that are not going to come from Washington. I’m a local official who doesn’t get up in the morning and go to an office in Washington.
For a party that really needs to reconnect across our 50-plus states and territories, I think I’m in a better position than most to deliver on that based on my experience, based on my bread and butter, which is local government and political organizing.
Blade: You were just endorsed by Martin O’Malley. To what extent do you think that has boosted your standing in your bid to become DNC chair?
Buttigieg: I think endorsements are certainly helpful, whether it’s a former DNC chair like Steve Grossman, a successful governor like Martin O’Malley, especially since we’re headed to his city [of Baltimore for a forum], an organization like Vote Vets, which endorsed us yesterday. The coming tide of endorsements is helpful.
The most important thing, of course, is the 447 people who vote, and we’re working very hard to connect with all of them and to continue remaining in touch with voters — most of whom, we’ve found, are not making up their mind until very late in the game, which helps us.
Blade: Do you have any committed support from DNC members?
Buttigieg: Sure. When we’re ready to put out a hard count to media, you’ll know it. What I’ll say is, yeah, we’re pleased with the support that we’ve got and at the same time we’re talking to a lot of folks who are keeping their powder dry.
Blade: If elected, you’d be the first openly gay person to chair the Democratic National Committee. What would be the significance of that?
Buttigieg: I want to be, of course, a chair for everybody. I think that we’re a party that has stood up for fairness, has stood up for freedom and I think the LGBT community has seen a lot of the most urgent issues around that in the last few years. And it’s a moment where everybody in America — whether it’s DREAMers, or LGBT Americans or blue-collar workers in the industrial Midwest — wants to know where they belong in the American future, and I think I have a chance to send a pretty strong message about why everybody can belong in the America that we want to build.
Blade: There’s been a lot of discussion about why Hillary Clinton lost the election. Why do you think that was the case?
Buttigieg: When the margin’s this close, people have offered a thousand reasons and they’re all right. But a couple of patterns that I noticed in our part of the country: One is that we spend a lot of time talking about the politicians themselves, there was a lot of talk about Hillary, “I’m with her.” And then increasingly the theme of the campaign became, “We’re against him.” That left a lot of people at home saying, “OK, but who’s talking about me?”
We’re talking about the candidates themselves as if they were what mattered most, missing the chance to talk to the voters about how their lives were going to be impacted by the decisions made in Washington.
I also think there were a lot of areas where we didn’t show up the way we could have. Even in rural counties, even in rural counties we’re not going to win, you still got to show up because losing by 60-40 versus 80-20 adds up when it comes to statewide counts in the Electoral College, and I think we need to make sure that our message does a better job of balancing the values that make us Democrats with on-the-ground outcomes and how all of this hashes out in people’s everyday real lives.
Blade: I noticed you didn’t mention either the Comey letter or Russian involvement in your response there. Do you think those were not factors?
Buttigieg: I think they were factors, but knowing the majority that Democratic values command among the American people, an election should never be that close to begin with.
Blade: What is your plan for LGBT issues at the DNC?
Buttigieg: I think the LGBT community can’t be taken for granted by the DNC, especially given the level of “pinkwashing” of the Trump campaign that we saw. And even though the latest worrisome rumors of some kind of executive action so far haven’t led to anything, we have to recognize that this is a president who specializes in targeting vulnerable people and communities for abuse, and therefore, no matter who he’s abusing at the moment, he cannot be a friend of the LGBT community, and a vice president who has one of the most spectacular anti-LGBT records of any living American politician.
Blade: But is there anything in terms of goals for the structure of the DNC?
Buttigieg: Obviously, we got to make sure the council is strong. We got to make sure that we have good representation among our staff, our vendors, our delegates. I think all of us are going to say basically the same thing about that. That’s a commitment that we make to the LGBT community and to every community, every community of interest that makes a part of the Democratic coalition.
At the same time, I don’t want people in the LGBT community or any other part of the Democratic coalition to feel like we’re going to talk to the community one at a time, or that we’re trying to buy people off. We want people to be Democrats because they believe in Democratic values and support Democratic candidates because it’s the right thing to do, and living our values in terms of the makeup of our delegates and our staff, that’s something we do because it’s the right thing to do, not in order to impress people.
Blade: Can you elaborate a little more on how the Democratic Party could win in places like Indiana? Barack Obama won in 2008, but that was an aberration.
Buttigieg: Yeah, but we also have a Democratic U.S. senator. Up until 2010, five of our nine members of Congress were Democrats. Then redistricting happened and a few other things happened.
You can see how the “50-State Strategy” really benefited a state like mine if you look at where we stood in let’s say 2008 or 2010. And so, part of it is we’ve got to make sure we’re investing in every part of the country. We also got to make sure our message is explained in terms it cases out for real people, so when we talk about something like ACA [repeal], we talk about the stories of the human beings who are going to be affected by it. I think people in my own immediate and extended family would be affected by having the rug pulled out from under us with something ACA [repeal]. We can’t just be talking in terms of statistics.
Communities, working-class communities, rural communities actually have the most to lose from bad policy. We’ve got to make sure we talk about policy, not on their own terms and certainly not in terms of the game in Washington, but in terms of what’ll it actually do to and for people in their everyday lives.
Blade: How would you evaluate being gay in a state that has never had statewide LGBT non-discrimination protections and very recently Mike Pence as governor? It certainly must be different than being gay in a place like Washington, D.C.
Buttigieg: Yeah, just a little. When I came out, we didn’t really know what impact that was going to have, but it obviously wasn’t a problem for the re-elect. We got 80 percent for the re-elect. There was some ugliness online, that sort of thing. But for the most part, people just wanted to know that I was going to be a good mayor, and people in the community more broadly, they wanted to know they’re going to be OK.
I did have a lot of people — especially younger people, students — who maybe didn’t know that their community had a place for them who’ve come forward or come out or come to the LGBT center, and that’s a really compelling thing to see. But I had people who reached out from other parts of my life, people in the military, people I went on missions with and I had no idea they were in the same boat. And of course, living in Mike Pence’s Indiana, it’s probably that much more important for people to know that everybody’s safe.
But we got a long way to go. We had a guy beaten to death because he was gay in South Bend in 2016. And we’re one of the handful of states that doesn’t have hate crimes legislation. We got a very long way to go.
On the other hand, the other thing I noticed after I came out, and something that I think was especially important because during the whole religious freedom fight, I was concerned about people who really want to come to the right side of history, but they just can’t get themselves there yet, making sure we didn’t force them into a corner and push them away, making sure we kind of help them get there.
And so, one thing that’s been amazing to me is people, especially in an older generation who actually in an occasionally awkward way, but a very endearing way, loved the opportunity to show that they’re accepting — women in their 70s who would come meet my partner, and then come to me later and say, “I met your friend. He’s wonderful.”
And people in their own way are trying to get on this road to acceptance. I had — the newspaper delivery guy stopped bringing me my paper after I came out for some weird reason, and my neighbor told me with tears in her eyes — she was about my mom’s age, I imagine they’re pretty conservative, we don’t talk politics much — basically told me about how she let him have it. I started getting my paper again.
Blade: That’s the reason why? You came out and he stopped delivering your paper?
Buttigieg: Apparently. She had a conversation with him. She watches my house very carefully when I’m away, noticed the paper wasn’t arriving and she confronted him. So I guess my point my is, it’s not false that we’re a state that really cares about the idea of welcome, the idea of inclusion, the idea of being nice. It’s been interesting to watch how people to start to watch the relationship between that and acceptance and inclusion for the LGBT community.
Blade: What was the experience like with Gov. Pence from the legislature passing a “religious freedom” law, him signing it, the outrage that followed afterwards and him signing the so-called fix?
Buttigieg: Obviously, I was just experiencing that also just as a mayor in Indiana, right? And in this tricky place of wanting to encourage the efforts to stand up to this kind of thing and on other hand, feeling defensive about your state, too.
So, for example, we had somebody call one of our museums, a great museum donor, saying I still love your museum, but I can’t give to anything in Indiana right now. You had a lot of moments like that. I think that’s why you saw bipartisan resistance. The Republican mayor of Indy was just as furious about this as I was in South Bend. And the revolt of the business Republicans was a big part of what turned the tide.
The thing about Mike Pence is, he’s a super-nice guy, who just genuinely believes this stuff. He operates from a different reality than the rest of us operate from. He’s written that cigarettes don’t kill, he thinks climate change is made up. He must assume that people get up in the morning one day and decide to be gay. And so, as nice as he’ll be to you in person, when it comes to policy, like a moth to a flame, he goes in for these divisive and backward-looking policies and I think is having the same influence in the White House right now that he did as governor.
As governor, I think the people around him tried to talk him out of these blunders, and they happened anyway. Now, I think it’s the reverse, it’s him talking people into things, and I’m very nervous about what that means. I think that for those who know him, the idea of him as sort of mastermind, man-behind-the-curtain kind of thing isn’t very plausible because there was a lot of bumbling in the administration as governor.
But when you have a president who actually has no ideology of his own, and who is very susceptible to the influence of whoever spoke to him last. Having somebody with this extreme mentality in that position of power is a threat not just to the LGBT community, but I think to the community of people who are committed to enlightenment.
Blade: Why did you choose to start your political career in a small town in Indiana. You’re a talented guy, military background, Rhodes scholar, but then you decide you’re going to be mayor of South Bend, Ind. What made you do that as opposed to move to a larger city and start a career in federal office?
Buttigieg: Well, it’s home. I didn’t run for mayor because I was looking for an office to run for. I ran for mayor because I wanted my city to do better. Just like before that, I ran for state treasury because I thought the state treasury was doing a terrible job.
I really cared about my home town. When I was away, and I was in consulting for a while, I was traveling all over the world. I’d go to places like Washington and have a beer with somebody I knew from South Bend, and the conversation would turn to what’s going on around home.
I have noticed a lot of lot of very capable people face a decision at some point about going home to a relatively unhip place to make a difference, and as a friend of mine put it, in this country, you got to be from somewhere, and sooner or later if you’re going to make yourself useful in that way in public office, sooner or later you got to go home. And I know a lot of great people from the heartland who are doing good things, but they were not able to walk away from the job in New York or Washington or Dubai. And so, they’re not in public service in the way I would love to see them do, but they’re doing other things. And that’s OK for them.
For me, I care about my home. I was at a party, a house party in San Francisco, and I mentioned that I was moving home to Indiana, and the person who was a much younger professional I was talking to asked what sick relative I was moving to take care of. I was like it’s home. It’s a wonderful place with great people and I’m part of a community that we take care of each other in a way that’s really special and I have a chance I grew up in to watch the buildings rise and fall because of decisions you make to try to make the place better. If it’s the last thing I do in politics, that’s a pretty great thing to have done.
Blade: You may have mentioned this publicly before, but how do you envision your role as mayor and being DNC chair at the same time?
Buttigieg: I can’t. I’m going to have to step away, and I love my day job, but it wouldn’t be fair to the city and it wouldn’t be fair to the party. There might be a shoulder season of a few weeks, but you can’t do those two things at once.
Blade: I’m just going to smash my last two questions together. What do you make of the White House last week saying Trump is respectful of LGBT rights and he’d preserve President Obama’s executive order against anti-LGBT discrimination and do you think there’s a lesson for LGBT people in the travel ban he signed?
Buttigieg: I’ll circle back to what I said earlier: No one who specializes in harming vulnerable groups can be regarded as a friend to the LGBT community even if we’re not the group he’s harming at the moment. And I would also say I do not believe that he cares about the LGBT community because I do not believe that he cares about anything at all.
Blade: That’s pretty succinct.
Buttigieg: It’s just not convincing, right? Nothing he says is convincing.