Pete Buttigieg is many things.
At just 37, he is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. He is a military veteran and a deeply religious gay man who is married but also enjoys sandwiches from (anti-same-sex marriage) Chick-fil-A. He is a Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar who speaks eight languages. He is the first ever millennial candidate for president and, so far, the only Democratic hopeful to appear on the “Fox News Sunday” show.
“I’m all of those things,” said Buttigieg — pronounced “Boot-edge-edge” — in an interview with the New York Post. “I try not to have any kind of attribute … be totally defining,” he added. Critics say these attributes are the very reasons why he can’t beat Donald Trump. His supporters say they are the very reasons he can.
Mayor Pete, as he likes to be called, strikes a tone that is kinder and less combative than the insult-driven politics of Trump and the Democratic Party’s far-left members. His boyish good looks, intelligence and military background are undoubtedly appealing, as is his faith.
“Scripture tells us to look after the least among us, that it also counsels humility and teaches us about what’s bigger than ourselves,” said Buttigieg, a devout Episcopalian. “It points the way toward an inclusive and unselfish politics that I strive to practice, whether I’m talking about my faith on the stump or not.”
Mayor Pete’s politics are already gaining traction. Since launching his exploratory committee to run for president on Jan. 23, he has already raised $7 million for his campaign. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 4 percent of Democrats would vote for him — the same number that supports Elizabeth Warren, who has been a U.S. senator for six years.
The fact that he was born and bred in the American Rust Belt is possibly his biggest asset.
“Our party can and should do better in the industrial Midwest,” Buttigieg said. “I’m convinced that so many people in this part of the country are already with us, much more than with the other party on issues, on substance, on policy.”
He said his experience in his hometown of South Bend proves there are solutions that work besides a “promise to turn back the clock.”
When Buttigieg was first elected to office in South Bend in 2011, the city was on its knees. Job growth was nonexistent, and like many Rust Belt cities with declining industry, it had been hemorrhaging jobs since the ’70s.
First, he improved the cosmetics of the town by demolishing more than 1,000 abandoned homes, and then he focused on revitalizing it by attracting hundreds of millions in private investment for commercial development.
You won’t find Buttigieg ridiculing fellow Midwestern voters or taking them for granted, the way Hillary Clinton’s campaign did in 2015. After the University of Notre Dame, based in South Bend, invited her to attend their prestigious St. Patrick’s Day event, her campaign declined, telling organizers that “white Catholics were not the audience she needed to spend time reaching out to,” as The New York Times wrote.
Trump would go on to win those white Catholic votes in 2016 — 52 percent of them, according to Pew’s exit polls, reversing the gains Democrats made when Barack Obama earned their votes in 2008 and 2012.
Even so, Buttigieg’s religious beliefs haven’t prevented him from taking progressive positions on major issues.
He supports abortions into the third trimester out of a belief in “freedom from government,” he said. And he won’t rule out tax hikes. “If the only way I can get all of us paid parental leave, universal health care, dramatically improved child care, better education, good infrastructure and, therefore, longer life expectancy and a healthier economy is to raise revenue, then we should be honest about that,” he said.
And although natural gas leads to good, solid jobs in the Rust Belt, he is a big booster of wind and solar power. “I think the goal still has to be focused on renewables,” he said.
But just because Buttigieg has a progressive platform doesn’t mean he’ll get an easy ride from far-left Democrats. Last month, the woke crowd at Slate questioned the young mayor’s credentials with a since-changed headline that read “Is Pete Buttigieg just another white male candidate, or does his gayness count as diversity?”
And just because Buttigieg is from the Rust Belt doesn’t mean he can win a general election in places like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, especially when you compare his platform to Trump’s.
“He has to share their values on bread-and-butter issues like lower taxes, regulations and religious liberty,” warned Dr. G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. If he doesn’t, “it would be very difficult for him to win.”
But Jeff Rea, a former Republican mayor from another Indiana town and current president of the South Bend chamber of commerce, said nobody should count out Mayor Pete. He and Buttigieg have been on opposite sides on a number of projects but have “always found a way to come together for a solution.”
Buttigieg “is a very data-driven guy and also a very good man,” Rea added. “That has helped him win over voters who might not like progressive politics.” No mayor in history has ever run and won his or her party’s nomination for president, nor has anyone under the age of 43. Then again, no businessman had ever done it until Trump came along.
Michael Wear, the faith adviser to Obama, told me he thinks Mayor Pete has a chance.
“Things change,” Wear said. “And, in America, anything can happen.”
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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