“The week I got into the race in 2011, we were characterized as a dying city by Newsweek,” Buttigieg told me about his first run for mayor of South Bend, before explaining why it was critical for his industrial city to move beyond the heartbreak of the closing of the Studebaker factories in 1963. “Even though I was born 20 years after Studebaker closed, my entire life, the city was wrestling with that past,” recounted Buttigieg. “And, ironically, the only way that we could capture the energy of the people who created this very innovative economy in South Bend in the early 20th century was not to look back at them, but to emulate their focus on the future.”
And his next choice of words says as much about his economic philosophy as his view on politics.
“I don’t think any successful political message, or community message, can contain the word ‘again’ or the word ‘back.’ It’s not about going back,” the mayor said. “We recognize and honor our past. We understand that we’re building on a tradition. But when you look into that tradition, chances are the people that you most admire are the ones who kept their eyes squarely on the future.”
Buttigieg, who announced days after our December interview that he would not seek a third term, was elected in 2011 with 74 percent of the vote. His hard work in pushing South Bend into the 21st century was rewarded with reelection, with 80 percent of the vote. He said that was because he delivered on his goals.
“The first time we did a poll while I was mayor, we found I was equally popular among Democrats, Republicans and independents,” Buttigieg said. “It had nothing to do with faking some kind of conservatism that wasn’t me, it was about delivering consistently enough. That even if people disagreed with me on some things ideologically, they trusted that I was gonna bring my best to serve the city, and that it was gonna continue producing good results.”
It should also be noted that in the middle of his reelection campaign in 2015, Buttigieg penned an op-ed in the local paper announcing he is gay. As noted above, it had no impact on his electoral chances as he was sent back to City Hall with four percentage points more support than four years earlier. “My hope is that 10 or 20 years from now, or at least by the time I have kids who are becoming adults, it won’t be a thing you have to do,” Buttigieg told me. “Straight people don’t have to come out, so I don’t know why we do.”
Three years to the date of his public coming out, Buttigieg married his partner, Chasten Glezman.
In 2017, Buttigieg ran unsuccessfully for chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But he is most riveting in our conversation when he talks about his vision of the Democratic Party. And it’s crystal clear. “If you wanna fit it into a bumper sticker, it’s about freedom, democracy and security,” Buttigieg said. “We have a way of thinking about freedom, democracy and security that’s maybe a little different than our conservative friends.” Here’s some of what he says about each.
Freedom from government matters a lot, obviously. But there’s a lot of other things that can make somebody unfree. Your credit card company can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your county clerk can make you unfree. And so we’ve got to recognize that good government, not necessarily bigger or smaller, but good government, is sometimes the only thing that secures our freedom . . . if you can’t sue your credit card company when they get caught ripping you off, you’re not free. So, one of the reasons we have a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is to defend your economic freedom.
Democracy is very much on the ballot, it’s very much at stake right now. The history of this country has been one of evolution toward more democracy, more people in particular having access to the ballot. And that seems to have stalled out right now. . . . There are people who seem to be more concerned about the million-to-one obscure case of voter fraud than the proven case of thousands and thousands of people suffering from what I think is a much bigger fraud, which is voter suppression.
[This] includes economic security. . . . Because people don’t enjoy any level of security if they can’t come up with 400 bucks to get through an emergency, which is true of a shockingly large number of Americans today. But also, if you just think of the 21st century security threats, there’s this fixation on border security at the moment. Border security is important. What about climate security? What about election security? What about cybersecurity? These are forms of security that have been tested, [and] not in a good way. . . . And it seems like we’re the only people prepared to talk about it.
Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a column in 2016 with the headline “The first gay president?” Buttigieg isn’t letting such heady expectations go to his head. But he is clearly thinking about making a go of it, as he articulated the three questions he believes a politician should ask themselves. “The questions you’ve got to ask are: Where do I belong? Is there some match between what a given community or district or state or country needs and what I have to offer? And how can I make myself useful?”
Listen to the podcast to hear Buttigieg inadvertently answer his own questions and make the case for a presidential bid.