WASHINGTON, D.C — More than a hundred Pete Buttigieg supporters filled several floors of Pitchers, an LGBTQ sports bar in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., on Sunday afternoon to watch the official campaign launch of the candidate who’s striving to be the first openly gay president in U.S. history.
And yet, both at his event in South Bend and the watch party in Washington, Buttigieg’s sexual orientation was hardly front and center. Not one person ThinkProgress spoke with cited his status as an openly married gay man as the reason for their support.
“I’m here to join you to make a little news,” Buttigieg told a crowded room of a once-abandoned factory in his hometown. “I’m a proud son of South Bend, Indiana, and I am running for president of the United States.”
Buttigieg’s official entry into the race comes after several highly-lauded appearances on national television suddenly skyrocketed him into the conversation of serious contenders for the nomination. Two months ago, the entry of a small-city mayor in his thirties into the race for president was met with mild bemusement — but a series of recent polls done in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire find Buttigieg trailing just Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, two candidates with high name recognition.
In Washington, just as in South Bend, where several of Buttigieg’s friends and colleagues spoke earlier in the afternoon, voters drew sharp contrasts between the mayor and the man he’s running to replace.
“He is so intelligent and smart. He is the future,” said Patti Senft, a resident of Springfield, Maryland, who made the trip to D.C. for the event. “Time for a young, fresh face with ideas. You can tell he listens and is genuine.”
Matt Siegal and Courtney Suss were also in attendance, after following Buttigieg’s rise in the polls these last few months. For Suss, it was the second time in as many weeks he attended an event for Buttigieg, having also been in the room when Mayor Pete himself was in the nation’s capital for a campaign event at a nearby winery.
After Buttigieg finished his address and the crowds at the bar thinned, Siegal offered only one point of reference when trying to put the moment in context.
“Honestly, he is the next incarnation of Barack Obama,” Siegal said. “I see Obama in him. Smart, well-spoken, honest, decent. I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect this.”
These type of comparisons aren’t the only way the two men are linked. Obama was one of the people responsible for putting Buttigieg on the national radar.
In a New Yorker article published days after the 2016 election, alongside known entities Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Tim Kaine (D-VA), Obama named Buttigieg as someone to keep an eye on in Democratic politics. It was the first time many people outside Indiana had heard of him.
For residents of his state, however, hearing Buttigieg’s name was not a surprise.
“We’ve crossed paths with Pete at various times,” said Rachel Fullmer, a native Hoosier and one of the organizers of Sunday’s watch party at Pitchers. “You could tell that Pete is going to do something really important. I thought he might run for governor, but after the 2016 election, it just became so apparent to me that we need a new generation of American leadership.”
Neither Fullmer nor her fellow organizers expressed concerns about Buttigieg’s age and perceived lack of legislative experience. In their minds, the current occupant of the Oval Office proves the conventions of presidential politics are changing.
“After Trump won, it’s like ‘anyone can do it’,” said another organizer of the event who asked not to be named for this story. “These preconceived notions we have about serving a number of years in office, and at a certain level — they don’t really matter anymore, because we have someone in the White House who is so clearly unqualified.”
“You don’t have to be senator to run for president,” added Alexa Lopez, a third event organizer. “I’m really sick of that notion. It’s about who’s qualified and who’s going to speak to people and get things done.”
During his speech on Sunday afternoon, Buttigieg spent ample time highlighting his accomplishments as mayor of a town decimated by the collapse of industrial work. His efforts have led to a gradual and still ongoing revitalization of the city as a harbor for tech startups and other entrepreneurial efforts, aided in part by the proximity of Notre Dame University. Residents in the town speak highly of Mayor Pete, and overwhelmingly elected him to a second term.
He also rehashed several parts of his campaign stump speech, touting his commitment to the environment, to matters of racial and social justice, to gun reform, and to health care.
“Someone said ‘all politics is local.’ I would say all politics is personal,” he said, riffing on former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous line. Buttigieg recounted the ways in which politics — nationally, locally — had a direct, measurable impact on his own life, including his 2017 marriage to husband Chasten Buttigieg, a marriage that the current vice president fought to prevent.
Of course, Buttigieg still has a long, uphill battle if he is to secure the Democratic nomination. At least 20 Democratic candidates have already announced their candidacies, with several others — including former Vice President Joe Biden and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio— expected to follow suit in the coming days.
But at least in this corner of Washington, Mayor Pete has convinced some voters he is for real, and that he stands above the rest of the 2020 field. When asked if anyone else in the Democratic primary has impressed him so far, Siegal put it succinctly.
“Not anymore,” he said.