MASON CITY, Iowa — South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the gay candidate beating expectations in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, said Monday he doesn’t regret coming out later in life, asserting “there’s not a lot to be gained” by rethinking the issue.
“I guess my life would be very different,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t know if it’d be better or worse. You’re just — you’re ready when you’re ready. I suppose if dating had been available to me in my 20s I might not have done a lot of the other things I wound up doing. But there’s, there’s not a lot to be gained trying to rewind and guess what otherwise would have been.”
Buttigieg made the comments in response to a question from the Washington Blade on his campaign bus tour over the weekend in Iowa, where reporters, including the Blade, were embedded with him. Recent polls in Iowa indicate he’s a top-tier candidate competing with Joseph Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Reporters asked Buttigieg a range of questions — both personal and policy-based — in between his appearances at rallies and other events in the state. On the final day of his tour en route to a meet-and-greet event in Britt, Iowa, media outlets, including the Blade, pressed the candidate on his coming out process.
One reporter opened up the questioning by asking Buttigieg if he wouldn’t be running for president if he hadn’t come out how and when he did. In June 2015, Buttigieg — at the age of 33 — came out as gay in an essay for the South Bend Tribune titled “Why Coming Out Matters” a few months before he was up for re-election as mayor.
“It’s hard for me to kind of picture alternate universes,” Buttigieg replied. “But I’m running for president because of what is needed right now, and that’s mainly about vision. And if I saw another candidate offering what I was offering, I would probably be following that, not leading. But I don’t know that that would be different if I weren’t gay. You know my story is part of me, and it’s all part of the same person — and therefore part of the same picture — but where I think America needs to go isn’t about me, it’s about America.”
The Blade followed up on that question by asking Buttigieg about whether he missed an opportunity to impact LGBT acceptance in Indiana by waiting to come out until later.
After all, just months before Buttigieg’s essay was published, Indiana was ground zero in the LGBT rights movements. Then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act that enabled sweeping anti-LGBT discrimination in the state.
As the Blade pointed out, Pence signed the law in April 2015, then was forced to sign a “fix” to the measure in May 2015 amid a media frenzy and widespread condemnation from the business community and LGBT rights supporters.
Although Buttigieg kept quiet about his sexual orientation until one month after Pence signed the “fix,” the candidate said he “didn’t miss any opportunity to make an impact.”
“I was one of the leading voices to push back on it,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t know what would have happened if I had come out in the middle of that, but I’m guessing it would have been more about me and less about why the policy was terrible.”
Buttigieg added his advocacy against the law was more effective in his capacity as mayor of South Bend as opposed to a newly out gay man. The decision on coming out, Buttigieg said, was personal and unrelated to making any kind of impact on public policy.
“I reached this very personal decision,” Buttigieg said. “And frankly kind of resented the fact that it was going to have to be, you know, it would have anything to do with politics in the outside world, but I was also realistic about the fact that I was in a visible, leadership elected position.”
In making the decision to come out a few months before his re-election, Buttigieg said he had to think about whether it would imperil his position as mayor and his platform to speak, “especially when I found myself as a leading Indiana elected voice against Pence’s anti-LGBT law.”
(Despite Buttigieg’s assertion he was a leading voice against the law, a report in the Associated Press concluded he hedged that criticism with efforts to collaborate with Pence in his capacity as governor. At the time, Buttigieg was critical of state lawmakers over the religious freedom law and tweeted he was “disappointed” with Pence, but several weeks later attended a Pence event in South Bend.)
Nonetheless, Buttigieg has been a favorite in the LGBT community, which has helped propel him to become the first openly gay candidate being taken seriously in a presidential race. Gay donors excited to see Buttigieg succeed are a significant contribution to the impressive fundraising numbers regularly posted by his campaign.
Buttigieg, asked by a reporter on the campaign bus how his decision to come out helped his political career, said he would leave it to analysts to talk about the impact, but said it has helped him empathize with other communities.
“You don’t have to think you’ve been in somebody’s shoes, you don’t have to pretend there’s an equivalency between what you’ve been though and what somebody else has been through to tap into, and what somebody else has been through to tap into your own story to relate, or as propulsion to support somebody,” Buttigieg said. “And I suppose being gay is not the only way I felt that, but it’s the most powerful.”
Given Buttigieg came out at the age of 33, when other LGBT people — even his own age — had come out earlier and made contributions to the LGBT movement, the Blade asked the candidate whether he thinks he’d bring the experience of activists who had fought for LGBT rights to the White House.
“Everyone’s experience is different, right?” Buttigieg replied. “So, what I will say is that if I’m elected president, it would be a new thing in America, and it’ll be a step in America’s LGBTQ experience. Again, even within the LGBTQ community, there’s so much diversity. It’s not like I know anything personally about what it’s like to be a trans woman of color, other than, again, I think I have a reserve of empathy I can tap into.”
When another reporter asked about Iowa voters who say they’re unconcerned with his sexual orientation, but think it may be an impediment to others, Buttigieg said “way too many layers of convolution get added on to these things.”
“You got to vote for the person who you think is going to make the best president, and my job is to explain why I’d be the best president,” Buttigieg said.
Buttigieg said voters should focus on candidates with whom they connect “instead of psyching ourselves out trying to get ourselves into the hands of people that are different from us and guess how they might vote.”
“If something moves you, or inspires you, that’s the best evidence that’s going to move or inspire someone else,” Buttigieg said.
Pressed on the issue, Buttigieg brought up similar concerns made years ago about whether Barack Obama would be successful as a black candidate running for the White House.
“I remember a lot of conversation from folks in ’07,” Buttigieg said. “Folks would say, ‘I’m ready, I’m ready for sure for a historic president, but I’m just not sure the world is.’”
Pointing out Obama’s eventual success, Buttigieg said the lesson he draws from that is not to “outsmart ourselves” by worrying about electability in a candidate with positive attributes.
Buttigieg’s sexual orientation has also come up in recent news reports following polls that show some black voters in the South, who overwhelmingly support Biden, find Buttigieg’s sexual orientation a barrier to supporting him.
Late last month, The State, a South Carolina-based newspaper, published a memo on internal Buttigieg campaign focus groups indicating black voters in South Carolina find the candidate’s sexual orientation a barrier to supporting him. Additional stories were published in Politico and the New York Times to the same effect.
Asked about the reporting by the Blade, Buttigieg said he doesn’t think his sexual orientation “has to be an obstacle” for black voters.
“I don’t think that it has to be an obstacle, and I get where all that comes from, and there’s a clearly a life journey within a lot of church communities, and a lot of generational dynamics,” Buttigieg said.
Despite the continued percolation of the issue, Buttigieg said he thinks he can deliver for black voters based on his policy positions, which include a “Douglas Plan” to rectify racial injustice.
“But in the end, I think voters, and in particular black voters who have felt both abused by the Republican Party, but also taken for granted by the Democratic Party, they just wanna know if there are going to be results,” Buttigieg said. “And if I can demonstrate that, then a lot of the other stuff falls away.”
Asked by the Blade whether the internal focus group published by the State was an authorized leak, Buttigieg denied that was the case. In response to another reporter’s question about whether similar focus groups were commissioned in other states, Buttigieg said he’ll “let others talk to focus group stuff.”
Bolstering the credence of this reporting Sunday was Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), who said there was “no question” Buttigieg’s sexual orientation could hurt his popularity among black voters, particularly those who are older. Sen. Kamala Harris, responding to this reporting, denounced the idea black voters are less accepting of LGBT people as a “trope,” although she said that wasn’t directly in response to Clyburn.
Buttigieg also made the case black voters should take a careful look at Biden’s record. In response to a separate question from the Blade on whether black voters are giving Biden a pass for his vote in the 1990s on the crime bill, Buttigieg identified the vote as a “concern” — despite the overwhelming support for it at the time, including in the black community — and said Biden’s record should be examined.
“I think that the more we have a chance to debate our records and our visions, the more that is a concern,” Buttigieg said. “The crime bill led to a lot more incarceration in this country, and from my perspective, in a place like South Bend, we’ve seen the effect of now a new generation of kids who have experienced a traumatic event, like the incarceration of a parent. I think it’s worsened by the crime bill, so I do think the debate of that record is going to be important of our country.”
When another reporter brought up Biden’s lead on bankruptcy legislation, Buttigieg stopped short of making the same criticism, but said it’s “really problematic in the ways in which bankruptcy has or has not been accessible to people.”
Jamal Brown, national press secretary for the Biden campaign, said in response to Buttigieg’s comments on the crime bill “the mayor got it wrong.”
“Crime was a major epidemic impacting communities of color in the early 1990s,” Brown said. “That’s why most of the Congressional Black Caucus supported Vice President Biden’s efforts as well as African-American clergy and mayors across the country who wanted safer streets. As a result, the violent crime rate was cut in half.”
Brown added Biden has proposed further reforms to address racial inequities in the justice system.
“Building on the Vice President’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system, our campaign recently released a plan to address racial disparities, ensure black and brown parents feel confident when their children are safe walking the streets of America and restore trust between police and citizens in communities like Ferguson and South Bend,” Brown said.