“Maybe more than one-quarter,” Mayor Paul Buttigieg said while leading an informal tour of the village, on the Maltese island of Gozo. The tour included stops at Buttigieg Piazza, at two busts honoring eminent Buttigieges and at the birthplace of Gozo’s first bishop, Michele Buttigieg, born in 1793.
No one in this village — where actually one in every 14 people is a Buttigieg — is directly related to the U.S. presidential candidate. But for people in this Mediterranean nation, and especially in villages like Qala where the surname is most concentrated, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s surprise push through the Democratic primaries has nonetheless stirred a kind of sporting pride — a sense that any Buttigieg beyond Maltese borders deserves support.
Mayor Pete’s father, a former Notre Dame professor who died last year, was born in Malta and immigrated to the United States in the 1970s to pursue his doctorate. That Mayor Pete is a product of America doesn’t seem to reduce the desire of people here to claim a connection to the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. They note how Mayor Pete has visited Malta. They point out where his relatives still live. They describe watching YouTube clips of him speaking in Maltese.
It helps that Mayor Pete has spoken fondly of Malta, describing it as gorgeous, like a replica Jerusalem with all its stone buildings, a perfect backdrop for filming TV shows and movies. He has also made note of the small-town feel. His own county in Indiana has 270,000 people, compared with Malta’s population of 490,000. And he has played for laughs one of the many obvious differences between the United States and his ancestral homeland.
“The funny thing is, over there, [Buttigieg is] like Smith — it’s one of the most common names,” he said in January during a small meeting with voters.
“I wouldn’t be the first President Buttigieg in the world,” he continued. “There was a President Buttigieg in Malta who was next-door neighbors with my family Buttigieges, and they weren’t even related.”
That would be Anton Buttigieg, Malta’s second president. His grandson, also named Anton Buttigieg, talks fancifully about how it would feel if Mayor Pete won his long-shot bid and visited Malta as America’s president.
“It would be like the pope or something is coming,” he said.
So, how do they pronounce it?
There are, in fact, 2,850 Buttigieges in Malta, according to the last census, one in every 170 people. A few, like Sam Buttigieg, 62, who paints roads for the government, are products of Buttigieg-Buttigieg marriages. All across the country, Buttigieges sell insurance, teach music, install air-conditioning units and sit in parliament. And there are multiple Buttigieg mayors — not just Mayor Paul in Qala, but also Mayor Albert in the town of St. Julian’s.
For non-Maltese unfamiliar with the surname, it can be a bit challenging to pronounce, what with the collision of drumlike consonants at the end. Mayor Pete has tried to give some guidance of his own: His campaign posters say Boot-edge-edge. But Maltese tend to hit the notes a little differently, speeding through the first two syllables and drawing out a “geeeech” at the end.”
The surname has Arabic roots, dating at least to the Middle Ages, a time when some names were derived from occupations. Literally, it means father or master of chickens, so Buttigieges would have been in the poultry business going a long way back.
President Trump has called the name “unpronounceable” and made a show of laboring over the syllables. “Who wants to watch Boo-de-dedge?” he said to a mix of laughter and jeers at a rally in December. “Boo-de-jedge?” he said, revising.
A Maltese radio station, mounting a Mayor Pete defense, wondered how Trump would fare in pronouncing other common last names in the country: Xerri, Schembri, Cuschieri, Xiberras, Buhagiar.
“The Buttigieg surname has internationalized,” said John Buttigieg, a former member of parliament and son of Malta’s second president.
The Maltese seem supportive of Mayor Pete as an openly gay, married man. Malta has a liberal position on LGBT issues. The nation legalized same-sex marriage in 2017 and uses gender-neutral language on official documents.
But Maltese tend to say there is one aspect about Mayor Pete they would not defend: his resistance to restrictions on abortion. Malta is the only European Union country that bans abortion under all circumstances. Although the country is no longer as religiously observant as it once was, Catholic influence remains strong, as does the belief that abortion is immoral. According to some polls, 90 percent of Maltese oppose abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy. For that reason alone, Mayor Pete might not be able to win an election in Malta.
“It’s the one and only reason I couldn’t vote for Pete,” said George Buttigieg, a Maltese ambassador and retired obstetrician.
But he said he can get behind Mayor Pete as something else: a proxy for people on a small island who have thought about challenging themselves in a bigger place, wondering how it would go.
“I have a lot of admiration for Pete,” George Buttigieg said. “He strikes a chord in my subconscious.”
'Maybe one day, Mayor Pete can meet Mayor Paul'
In the same week that Mayor Pete was preparing for the Nevada caucuses, Mayor Paul was driving through his village, along terraced hillsides fortified by white stones, overlooking patches of farmland to one side and an emerald cove to the other. Then, he arrived at the center of the village and saw his challenge for the day: the chickens.
They had spilled out of their coop, yet again, walking into Buttigieg Piazza, pulling at the geraniums.
“See what they do here?” Mayor Paul said. “There were five chickens originally. But they keep procreating.”
“I called the owner yesterday and said, ‘Please contain them.’ ”
Mayor Pete, 38, regularly responds to gibes about his inexperience by talking about all the things that come at you as a mayor, about how he has worked “side by side with neighbors on some of the toughest issues that come up in government.”
Mayor Paul, 56, agrees with that sentiment. Even before he became mayor, he was fighting developers who have sought to build villas on an untouched stretch of Qala seaside. He simmers within minutes of bringing up the subject, describing how such development would upend the village. The fight over the development, as he sees it, involves not just residents and developers, but more powerful politicians, hidden money and revenge tactics.
So far, he has prevented the project from going forward.
“It’s in our Buttigieg genes,” he said. “Whatever you put your head into, you can do it.”
Mayor Paul, a man with dark eyebrows, coarse gray hair and the broad chin of a TV policeman, said he has things in common with Mayor Pete. “People consider me very moderate,” he said. He’s a member of Malta’s center-left Labour Party.
“Maybe one day,” he said, “Mayor Pete can meet Mayor Paul.”
Sometimes, when the stress rises, Mayor Paul likes to retreat to his backyard and step into a onetime chicken shed — a building he has transformed into a personal movie theater with plush seats and a 4K projection system. he likes to watch action movies, with the volume turned up and all the world’s other noise pushed away.
But on this night, he was with former mayor Vince, and they sat down instead with Mayor Paul’s wife in the kitchen, with some snacks and glasses of sweet Montenegrin wine.
After some stories, after an hour had passed, Mayor Paul remembered an anecdote he wanted to share — about the younger of his two daughters.
She must have been about 20 at the time, he said. She was trying to tell him about a guy she was dating, a relationship that didn’t last. But before she could get his name out, she started laughing.
“Don’t tell me he’s a Buttigieg,” Mayor Paul remembered saying.
“Worse,” his daughter said.
Her boyfriend’s name was Paul Buttigieg.