The not-so-gay crusade of Pete Buttigieg.
By KEVIN PHINNEY
Pete Buttigieg won’t go away.
As the first serious gay contender for a major party’s nomination, Buttigieg finished at the top of the Iowa caucuses, second in New Hampshire and third in Nevada.
He’s been the subject of scorn from the religious right and recently weathered attacks from radio reactionary (and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner) Rush Limbaugh. Each time, Buttigieg has batted them away and insisted that his orientation has nothing to do with how he’d run the Oval Office.
At the same time, he’s also been attacked on the left — not only by more liberal candidates for his million-dollar donors — but by segments of the LGBTQ community who somehow don’t believe he’s quite “gay enough” to represent them.
Buttigieg is taking each hurdle as it comes. This mayor of South Bend, Indiana is in it to win it, and Mayor Pete isn’t going anywhere any time soon. He’s a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes scholar and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. At 37, he’s barely old enough to run for the office (the required age is 35), and if elected, he’d be the youngest ever to serve.
He’s also such a warm and affable apple pie kind of guy, you’d suspect Donald Trump eats people like him for brunch. We spoke to him last year in between stops on the campaign trail.
What He’d Prioritize
METROSOURCE: Clearly you don’t want to be identified as a single-issue candidate just because you’re gay. What would you prioritize in the first days of a Buttigieg administration?
Buttigieg: The first priority must be democracy itself. I don’t think we’re going to be able to solve most of our major policy issues if we don’t first improve our political system where those issues come to get heard. That means everything from redistricting reform and addressing money in politics to making sure our democracy is more democratic by reconsidering the electoral college and looking at statehood for a place like D.C.and making sure people in the territories have equal rights. Every generation up until now has seen America grow more democratic, not less, and I don’t want ours to be the first where the reverse is true — but we’re on track for that if nothing changes.
So, I think democracy is front and center. I’ve talked a lot about ways to enhance freedom as well. The reason I believe in making sure we have universal health care is because I think it makes people freer. I think there are a lot of other economic as well as equality considerations. And third, I think security. I think it’s time for Democrats to get back in the business of talking about security, especially when you have 21st century security challenges like climate security and election security that the other side doesn’t seem to care about at all.
METROSOURCE: One difference between you and Donald Trump is that you did serve in the military. How did that experience help you prepare to become Commander-in-Chief?
Buttigieg: First, it gives me a very intimate understanding of what’s at stake when a president orders young men and women to go to war, having been among those young men and women. I think it also gave me a sense of just how complex and important our structure of alliances has been. We were in a true coalition environment. And the destruction of American alliances in the last few years really does put American lives at risk, and the next president will have a lot of work to do to repair and enhance America’s role as a leader in the world. I believe that you can either resent the rest of the world, or you can lead it; but you can’t do both. And we need to make the right choice in order to be a safer country for the next generation. Third and maybe most importantly, it was just an experience that brought me together with a lot of other Americans — people from very different backgrounds; very different political views and we learned to trust each other with our lives. And I think we need more of that nationally, but it shouldn’t require going to war. It’s one of those reasons I think national service is something we really need to find a way to expand in our country.
Gays and Trans Americans in the Service
METROSOURCE: And when you talked with people in the service, how do they feel about working alongside gay and trans Americans?
Buttigieg: Most people I served with couldn’t care less. They wanted to know if you were prepared to do your job, and if they could trust you to handle a weapon or read an intelligence brief or whatever else was expected of you. The military, if I’m not mistaken, is the largest employer of transgender Americans and these are Americans who just want a chance to do a good job and serve their country like everybody else. I do not understand what motivates this president to attack people who are willing to serve — fellow Americans — especially given that he was somebody who got out of his obligation to serve when it was his turn.
I really became interested in public service when I was finishing high school and starting college. I did not realize that it would mean going back to my hometown and serving in local government, but that’s something I came to understand over time. But yeah: If you had asked me when I was younger in college, I would have believed that somebody could either be out or be in elected office, but not both.
The Making of the Mayor
METROSOURCE: You lost your father not long ago. How did he help shape your worldview?
Buttigieg: He was a scholar who really cared about how ideas worked in the real world. He studied a lot of social theory, literature — things that I can’t even quite understand. But to the extent that I could keep up with him, it was really being introduced to a world of ideas that had wound up causing many bad and good things to happen. He was an expert in 20th century and what had happened with fascism in Italy and a lot of other movements that really show what’s at stake not only in politics but the world of ideas and the political impact those ideas can have.
METROSOURCE: It seems the cultural fabric of our country is more frayed now than at any time since the Vietnam era. What can you do to unite us?
Buttigieg: Well, I hope that my story can transcend some of those divisions. I’m somebody who is a progressive Democrat, but who lives in a red state. I’m somebody who believes in a lot of maybe more traditionally conservative values like faith and family and freedom but believes that those values are best served by progressive policies. And I’m looking forward to do being able to do what — hopefully — what I was able to do here at home, which is to draw a lot of support from Independents and Republicans. Not so much by pretending to be more conservative than I really am, but by focusing on reality, on results on lived experience and on the values that we do share.
Whose Indiana is it, Anyway?
METROSOURCE: While you’re looking to find common ground between us, another Indiana politician named Mike Pence is doing his best to practice the politics of division.
Buttigieg: Look, I think what really matters is whether our leadership pulls Americans apart or brings them together. In an odd way, Mike Pence helped unify Indiana around LGBT issues in the sense that Republicans and Democrats, mayors from both parties, business leaders — even organizations like NASCAR and the NCAA — all stood up to him on the so-called ‘religious freedom’ bill and said, ‘that’s not who we are.’ So, while it was divisive in one sense, it brought out the best in many of us. We responded and stood up to say that we believe our state is better when its inclusive and when everybody’s made to feel welcome.
METROSOURCE: Some say America is now a laughingstock around the world, since Donald Trump has alienated one ally after another and cozied up to dictators.
Buttigieg: I think that in an increasingly networked world, both good and bad ideas become more contagious. And the real dynamic that’s driving a lot of this is a false promise that’s being offered and that’s attractive to some, which is a promise to turn back the clock. In Europe, that often mean ethnically; in the U.S., it often means economically. But the bottom line is, there’s no turning back the clock. And I don’t think you can ever have an honest politics that revolves around the word ‘again.’
METROSOURCE: As I’m sure you know, fascism and nationalism are gaining in popularity elsewhere. It’s as though technology moves briskly along, and human nature remains stubbornly the same. A lot of the world looks politically and socially very similar to the 1930s.
Buttigieg: Well, I’ve spent a lot of time in different parts of the world, including Europe and the Arab world. And what I’ve seen is that people, even if they’re very skeptical of American governments and American leaders, still think warmly of American people. That is being put to the test and it won’t last forever if the American people don’t send a message that we want leaders who lead us in the right direction and represent us better. You know, one of the things that kept me safe when I was overseas was not only my armor and my weaponry, but just the fact that more people than not looked up to America. If we lose that, then that does put our security at risk.
METROSOURCE: You’ve been abroad and served overseas. What do you think are the key elements to restoring the country’s reputation with our allies, competitors and adversaries?
Buttigieg: It’s particularly important for us to establish, both through moral consistency and through concrete measures like U.S. aid, that we are prepared to carry a leadership role in the future. Especially at a time when — whether you’re looking at a place like Saudi Arabia that’s considered an American ally — or a place like Russia, or a competitor like China, or you see what’s going on in some parts of Europe. It seems like commitments to freedom and democracy are in the retreat.
Donald Fights Dirty
METROSOURCE: Donald Trump has no trouble or shame when it comes to objectifying people and reducing them to perceived flaws. How do you plan to cope with the insults that are bound to come your way in a presidential contest?
Buttigieg: Well, I’ve had a fair amount of batting practice over the course of my life when it comes to dealing with bullies. And I’m not that worried about it. I think the more the conversation is about him, the less it’s about us; the less it’s about people going through everyday life in places like South Bend and across America. One of the unfortunate attributes of this presidency is that it’s a bit like a computer virus. It ties up all our processing power and makes it hard for us to think or do anything else. But at the end of the day, it’s not about him. I think he’s a symptom more than a cause of a political and economic system that’s let a lot of Americans down, and really does need to be changed in a number of deep ways in order to serve us well for the years ahead.
I think we live in a moment when the disruption that people are experiencing in the economy goes beyond income. It’s income, but it’s a lot more than that. If you lose your position in the industrial economy that’s been steady for most of your life, and you’re told by some well-meaning policy maker like me that you just need to get some retraining and we’ll make you a whole new person, that may or may not be consistent with how you view yourself.
A job is more than a paycheck. It’s how we understand how we fit into the world. In an era where our relationship to the economy is changing — especially because of automation and technology, let alone things like globalization — that’s going to continue and it’s going to accelerate. And so if you lose that sense of community and identity and purpose that used to come from a lifelong relationship with a single employer, which is something that’s happening to a lot of people in my part of the industrial Midwest, something has to take that place. And there can be some very healthy responses to that, by allowing things like community and family and faith to play a greater role in how you define yourself relative to a lifelong career at a single employer.
If we don’t build up those things, then you’re going to get the alternative. And there have been some very ugly alternatives that have been offered and one of them has been, frankly, white identity politics, and it brings us to a pretty problematic place as a country.
Look at the Resumé
METROSOURCE: So, if this were a closing statement at a presidential debate, what would you say in conclusion about why you should be elected the next President of the United States?
Buttigieg: Well, look: there’s something very audacious, almost obscene, about any human being thinking they could handle the responsibilities of that office. And yet everybody who’s had that office has been a mortal human being with whatever abilities and experience they brought to the table. I think the experience of a mayor is extremely relevant; I would argue perhaps more relevant than being a member of the legislative body in Washington right now. Because a mayor is on the front lines of government. You’re an executive with day to day responsibility and could be handling anything at any given moment, from an economic development deal in an industrial park to a decision on activating the Emergency Operations Center to deal with a weather emergency. Every minute of the job, you are on the line in some way. It reflects both the day to day aspects of executive leadership and the more symbolic ones, which have to do with holding a community or group of people together and summoning their highest values. I think a mayor of a city of any size has had to do that many times, and I think that’s an experience that’s especially relevant today to the demands of the presidency.
METROSOURCE: So, let’s ask the question that could pass through the minds of many straight Americans as your campaign reaches out: How is Pete Buttigieg being gay going to impact his being president?
Buttigieg: Well, my marriage happens to be same sex. That’s also probably the most normal thing about my life. It holds me down to Earth and it widens my perspective and it’s something I have in common with people who are married who are not gay. I’ll also say that as someone whose marriage exists by the grace of a single vote on the Supreme Court, I have a deep understanding of how political choices affect everyday life. And that’s an understanding I carry with me not only when thinking about LGBTQ issues, but just more generally when thinking about what’s at stake in American politics and policy.
I tell this story at length in my book, which is out today called Shortest Way Home, so if anybody wants to get a deeper sense of what that was like, that would be the place to look. But to make a long story short, we met on a dating app called Hinge. And I’m glad that I clicked the right button because as soon as I met him, I knew that I’d met somebody special. Our first date was a pint at an Irish pub followed by a baseball game in South Bend. It didn’t take long to realize that something special had happened.
This is Not a Drill
METROSOURCE: Doubtless there are some who will say that your run, should you decide to make it, will be really a symbolic quest to shatter a glass ceiling for LGBTQ people. But the way you’re talking, you have some expectation you could win.
Buttigieg: Yeah… I just don’t see how you can do something like this — something that dominates your life in the way that running for an office like this does — that puts you out there and requires so much from you and a whole team of people and countless supporters. I don’t think you can do that unless you can see a path and you’re prepared to win and hold the office you’re running for.
I understand that this is an underdog project, but I think it’s a good season for underdog projects and for newcomers. And based on the early response we’ve gotten just on the exploratory committee; we think there’s a lot of other people who view it the same way we do. I’d say all the signs are pointing in the same direction, and we’re really All Systems Go now.
PeteforAmerica.com is our website and we’re very eager for people to add their names so that we can ask people to volunteer when we need it. And, in fundraising. We don’t have the sort of gilded fundraising base that a senator from one of America’s biggest cities might have. We’re really counting on grassroots support from people who, for whatever number of reasons, believe it makes sense for us to be part of this conversation. And it wouldn’t hurt if somebody who wants to be supportive got a copy of the book too.
You’re going to hear us talking a lot about freedom and demonstrating that freedom to live a life of your choosing — there’s a lot more to that than freedom from — freedom from regulation, freedom from taxes, freedom from government. It also has to do with building up people’s freedom to live a good life. And that means freedom to start a business even if it means changing jobs because you’re not afraid of losing your health care.
It means freedom to marry the person you love. It means freedom to be who you are. It means freedom to organize for better working conditions. And I think it’s high time that people on my side of the aisle got comfortable once again talking about freedom.
Last modified: March 2, 2020