His fundraising numbers are impressive; his boyish charm, infectious. Somewhat improbably, Pete Buttigieg is making believers out of many Americans who once considered his White House run fanciful at best.
As he looks more each day like a genuine presidential contender, Democrats have begun to wonder what it would be like to actually have “Mayor Pete” — President Pete — at the helm.
It’s a question perhaps best posed to his constituents in South Bend, Indiana, who know what it’s like to have Buttigieg upgrade their city’s computer systems and oversee plowing of its snow-covered streets.
And while it can be more than a little disruptive to have a mayor who’s away campaigning much of the time, South Bend residents say they’re thrilled to see him making a race of it, as he runs for the highest office in the land.
“There’s a lot of energy and excitement and light. I think it’s great he’s running,” said lifelong resident Regina Williams-Preston.
One unexpected dividend of having a mayor run for president, she said, is the additional revenue that comes to town with the surge in national interest. Buttigieg’s time in the limelight has benefited South Bend, allowing the city to compete for grants and vie for business it otherwise might not have gotten.
“People are interested in pouring money because they’re impressed by Pete,” Williams-Preston said. “It’s brought a lot of dollars into our community. So that’s all good.”
At 37, Buttigieg is barely old enough to run for the White House (the Constitution sets a minimum age of 35 to be elected president). He is the first openly gay person to run for the Democratic party nomination, and one of the youngest people ever to run for president.
Buttigieg won’t break the youngest nominee record: In 1896, the Democratic convention nominated William Jennings Bryan, aged 36, making him the youngest major party presidential nominee in U.S. history.
Residents of South Bend describe Buttigieg as lively and engaged, brilliant yet approachable, data-driven and laser-focused. He is credited with helping revitalize the rust-belt town, once an automotive manufacturing hub. Buttigieg said during his “State of the City” speech last year that one downtown initiative helped attract $90 million in investment to the area.
Despite his achievements and accolades, Buttigieg is punching well above his weight as he tries to vault from mayor of a small, Midwestern city (population 102,000) to the White House.
South Bend residents were surprised — but not displeased — when he announced in January that he was planning to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Jacob Titus, 26, was almost rhapsodic when speaking about Buttigieg’s qualities. He’s a local photographer who got the coveted gig of shooting the cover for the mayor’s best-selling memoir, Shortest Way Home.
Titus said he is most struck by Buttigieg’s inquisitive mind. “He’s incredibly curious,” he said, adding that most of their time during the photo shoot “was spent with him asking questions about what’s going on around town, recognizing that he has kind of a limited view, particularly that we kind of operate in different worlds.”
Titus added: “He’s always looking for the kind of unexpected or underground things that a mayor probably shouldn’t know about.”
On the strength of Buttigieg’s $7 million first-quarter fundraising performance, the millennial mayor has gone from affable outsider to serious presidential contender in the eyes of some political observers.
Once viewed as a dark horse, he not only has been hauling in a hefty number of donations, but garnering glowing media coverage and defying expectations in the polls as well.
Buttigieg trails some better known Democratic candidates in the polls, but he saw the largest jump in favorability ratings of any Democratic presidential candidate over the past two months, one survey found. A Morning Consult poll earlier this week found Buttigieg’s favorability rating jumped by 11 percentage points since the poll began tracking the popularity of 2020 Democrats in early February.
Adam DeBeck has met the mayor several times at local luncheons and at an event at Holy Cross, the college where DeBeck works as an alumni-relations director. “As a mayor, Mayor Pete has been someone who is consistently approachable…It’s weird to make eye contact with your local mayor and feel like you’re talking to your favorite musician or rock star,” DeBeck, 34, said with a laugh.
Buttigieg was able to bring “civic pride” back to South Bend by spearheading an effort to revitalize downtown, DeBeck said, attracting new development and beautifying the cityscape. Buttigieg’s campaign did not comment for this story.
For some however, admiration of Buttigieg is tempered with criticism. The mayor’s laser-focused approach to development resulted in him steamrolling over some of the city’s less fortunate inhabitants and residents of color, she said.
In late 2011, Williams-Preston, who is African American, and her husband decided to buy some local properties, a move they saw as an exciting investment in the neighborhood in which she had grown up. Not long after, her husband fell seriously ill, plunging the family into financial distress.
Before they knew it, they were also facing tens of thousands of dollars in code-violation fines from the city, which had just embarked on its “1,000 homes in 1,000 days” project — an initiative championed by Buttigieg to end the blight of abandoned homes. The effort was criticized for overly aggressive code enforcement that disproportionately impacted less wealthy neighborhoods and those with large minority communities.
“It’s not like there’s this nefarious plot to destroy people of color and move them out… but when we move forward with development, we often start displacing poor people and people of color,” said Williams-Preston, a teacher who’s now a South Bend City Council member, and is also making a run to succeed Buttigieg as mayor.
“I found it wasn’t just happening to me, it was happening to a lot of my neighbors in this community,” Williams-Preston said.
“Mayor Pete” is beginning to feel the first inklings of negative press after weeks of glowing media coverage. Stories this week zeroed in on a controversy early in his administration, when he fired the city’s black police chief — a move he now says he regrets.
Some African Americans, including Williams-Preston, suggest he might not always have been as sensitive as he should be to the needs and concerns of South Bend’s black residents.
Recent news reports faulted Buttigieg for his use of the term “All Lives Matter” during a speech a few years ago, rankling members of the local African-American community, for whom the term “Black Lives Matter” has become a rallying cry in the fight against racial injustice.
On Thursday, he told a gathering at the National Action Network in New York, that he now realizes that his remarks “actually wound up being used to devalue what the Black Lives Matter movement was telling us.”
Buttigieg added: “That is the contribution of Black Lives Matter and it’s a reason why, since learning about how that phrase was being used to push back on that activism, I’ve stopped using it in that context.”
But even his hometown detractors — including African Americans in South Bend like Williams-Preston — expressed admiration for his work there and for his trajectory since announcing his presidential bid.
Williams-Preston said she even predicted his ascent. “I said, ‘You know what, you could literally be the president of the United States someday,” she recalled, recounting a conversation with the mayor.
Being on the stump in early caucus and primary states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, means Buttigieg spends less time at home in South Bend, but many residents say that’s okay.
“I would love to see how he does when it gets down to the primaries. I think he can get that far. He’s definitely someone that I’m supporting,” said Michelle Aranowski, a 41-year-old insurance specialist in South Bend.
“He’s making all this headway. He’s kind of like a celebrity now. It’s really weird. He’s like everywhere you turn.”
“I’m just proud of it, you know?” Aranowski gushed. “That’s my mayor.”
UPDATED: This corrects an earlier version of the story which stated that William Jennings Bryan was the youngest president to assume office. He was the youngest nominee.