From the gritty streets of South Bend, Indiana— a modest city smack in the heart of America’s industrial Midwest— the unlikeliest of political stars has emerged. 37-year-old South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg is far more than just some small-town politician. He is a Harvard graduate, Rhode Scholar, an Afghan veteran, speaks eight languages and, as improbable as it sounds, he has a legitimate chance at becoming America’s 46th president.
Since his CNN town hall in early March, Pete Buttigieg or “Mayor Pete” as he is referred to in South Bend, has gone from a virtual unknown in the world of Democratic politics to the hottest presidential candidate in the country.
In just the past month, Buttigieg has seen his name recognition skyrocket— the most recent Monmouth Iowa poll has Buttigieg in third place, only behind bigger names like Senator Bernie Sanders and Former Vice President Joe Biden. Additionally, Buttigieg’s campaign reported a fundraising haul of $7 million for the first quarter of 2019. That’s more money than Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren raised in the same time period.
Perhaps what makes Buttigieg so attractive to Democratic primary voters is that he is essentially the antithesis of Donald Trump.
Buttigieg is a thoughtful intellect while Trump is simple-minded. Buttigieg’s demeanor is calm and steady; Trump’s is erratic and unpredictable. Buttigieg volunteered to risk his life for his country; Trump dodged the draft.
Another aspect of Mayor Pete that sets him apart from his Democratic counterparts is his faith. Buttigieg, a devout Episcopalian, has called for the emergence of what he calls “the religious left.” He believes that the Democratic party should emphasize what he sees as the main themes of Christian scripture: empathy, decency and protecting the most vulnerable members of society.
Buttigieg has repeatedly called out Evangelical Christians for the hypocrisy in their overwhelming support of a three-time married, racially insensitive president, who says he has “never asked God for forgiveness.” Just this week, Buttigieg called out the unofficial leader of the U.S.’s Evangelical conservative movement: Vice President Mike Pence. Buttigieg criticized Pence for his vocal opposition of gay marriage.
In his speech, Buttigieg, who is openly gay, said, “And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pence’s of the world would understand… that if you got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
Buttigieg’s openness about how he derives his political values from his faith contrasts the general trend of the Democratic party, which has largely avoided the topic of religion and instead focused its rhetoric on racial and economic inequality.
Mayor Pete’s background is impressive and his advocacy for faith-based decency seems sincere. However, it is not only Buttigieg’s well-polished resume or strong religious conviction that has put him on the path to becoming a political sensation. It is something else, something that is difficult to put into words but easy to spot. It is a certain charismatic charm that makes him so easy to like and makes him almost impossible for even his most fervid political rivals to hate; the same magnetic quality is seen in past Democratic politicians like Bobby Kennedy and Bill Clinton. It is a certain authenticity, an ability to empathize with the problems of others even if they don’t agree with his political views.
It’s what got him elected mayor twice in a socially conservative city, deep in the heart of Indiana. A city that voted overwhelmingly for Mike Pence in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. There is no doubt that Buttigieg has a unique ability to connect with voters who have propelled him from an unknown small-town mayor to a progressive wonder boy.
However, only time will tell if Mayor Pete’s rapid rise is just a political fad or if he is the real deal. Unfortunately for Buttigieg, we are still 294 days out from the first ballots being cast in the Iowa Caucus, so calling him a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination may be a little presumptuous. But, if there was ever a time that a 37-year-old gay mayor from the 300th largest city in the U.S could become president of the United States, perhaps, that time is now.
David Gordon is a freshman majoring in business.