When 50 or so curious people gathered in a living room here the other day to meet Pete Buttigieg, the first question he got was: What makes a 37-year-old mayor of a modest-size Midwestern city think he is qualified to be president of the United States?
That is one question that Buttigieg — a Rhodes scholar and Navy veteran who was not yet 30 when he was elected mayor of South Bend, Ind., in November 2011 — has had to answer many times.
“Look, you could be a senior senator and have never managed more than a hundred people in your life,” he said. “I not only have more years of government experience than the president of the United States, but I have more years of executive experience than the vice president of the United States, and more wartime experience than anybody who arrived in the office since George H.W. Bush.
“As cheeky as it sounds coming from the youngest guy in the conversation,” he added, “I think experience is one of the things that qualifies me to have a seat at the table.”
Except cheeky is not how he sounds at all. It is an understatement to say Buttigieg — known as “Mayor Pete,” because his Maltese last name is practically unpronounceable — is a long shot. That does not mean he isn’t a serious candidate.
He’s got a point when he notes that the rapidly growing field of 2020 Democratic contenders is thus far light on executive experience. He’s also got a good story to tell about his role in guiding the resurgence of a Rust Belt city.
And Buttigieg has what could be a compelling message for Democrats, with a riff that seeks to reclaim one of the right’s favorite words.
“ ‘Freedom’ means a lot to conservatives, but they have such a narrow sense of what it means. They think a lot about freedom from — freedom from government, freedom from regulation — and precious little about freedom to,” he said. “Freedom to is absolutely something that has to be safeguarded by good government, just as it could be impaired by bad government.”
Among those freedoms he cited: being able to leave a job and start a business without losing health coverage; a woman’s ability to make her own reproductive choices “without a male politician or boss imposing their interpretation of their religion”; and the right to marry the person you love.
“Allow me at this moment to introduce my husband, Chasten,” he added, bringing a round of applause. (Buttigieg announced he is gay when he was running for a second term in 2015, and got more than 80 percent of the vote in his socially conservative city.)
Another reason Buttigieg’s is a voice worth hearing in this election season is that, having been born in 1982, he represents the leading edge of the millennial generation and its unique set of life experiences.
He was himself in high school in 1999, when a dozen students at Columbine High near Littleton, Colo., were murdered by two of their classmates. In the aftermath of that massacre, active-shooter drills became a regular exercise in classrooms across the country.
His cohort also provided most of the troops for the wars that were started after 9/11. Among those who served was Buttigieg himself, who deployed to Afghanistan during his first term as mayor.
And people his age, he noted, “will be on the business end of climate change, for as long as we live.”
Buttigieg is not well-known enough to even register in the early polling. But at a time when Donald Trump sits in the White House, who’s to say what is improbable anymore?
“We get that the path is narrow and that this is an underdog project, but it seems to me there is a path, or we wouldn’t be doing it,” Buttigieg told me. “This cycle is going to test which of the rules are broken forever, and which are going to snap back into place.”
So for now, he’s trying to win voters one living room at a time. And judging by what I saw here in Merrimack, he is making headway, even with people who are old enough to be his parents.
“He’s like a nobody, but I hope he’s going to be a somebody,” Jeanne Gall, 66, said afterward. “He’s a man of substance, not just the blowhard cliches.” But this being preseason in New Hampshire, she’s still keeping her options open and is eager to see whether former vice president Joe Biden gets in the race.
Still, everyone that day came away at least knowing how to pronounce his name (“boot-edge-edge”). Which is a good thing. Because we all might be saying it more than we imagine.