So Sunday, as he officially launched his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg, 37, attempted to sharpen what many may see as a nagging weakness — his mayoralty of a small city, South Bend, Indiana — into more of a selling point.
He was joined at his hometown announcement by two fellow mayors of smaller cities. Christopher Cabaldon of West Sacramento, California, and Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, both spoke at the program. And the mayor of a much larger city, Steve Adler of Austin, Texas, introduced Buttigieg as a role model for him, despite Buttigieg being much younger.
“I was looking for and found in Mayor Pete a true executive,” Adler told the audience. “Mayor Pete is a mayor’s mayor. He’s is a mayor among mayors. I am standing here today with other mayors because we know something that this country needs to know, and we are in a unique position to know it. We can answer the question that many in America are asking. Mayor Pete is really that special.”
The campaign broadcast the event live on a redesigned Pete for America website that debuted earlier in the day with a blue-and-gold color scheme reminiscent of the University of Notre Dame, just outside South Bend, and the Indiana Pacers. Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay president, staged Sunday’s festivities inside an old Studebaker factory, a backup location pressed into service because of inclement weather, but one that allowed Buttigieg to show off city redevelopment on his watch.
“When you live together in a community like this one, or like Dayton, or like mine, you see the neighbor beyond the headscarf,” Cabaldon said. “You see the Little League snack bar volunteer beyond his immigration status. You see your daughter’s kindergarten-class best friend beyond political disagreements with her dad. And as your neighborhood police officer rushes to your aid, you’re not fazed that she’s living with a different pronoun.”
Cabaldon then added, to accentuate the point: “Washington politicians and pundits talk about mayors like we’re a different species. And you know what? Maybe they’re right.”
Buttigieg’s South Bend story of revival and economic development is more complicated than the unblemished turnaround job he portrays it as on the campaign trail. But he and his allies are framing his efforts to fix his industrial Midwest city as his party’s strongest contrast with President Donald Trump.
“Pete and I are both mayors of heartland cities that have faced big challenges over the last few decades,” said Whaley, who had cochaired a group to draft Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown into the race before Brown passed on a 2020 run. “The past loomed large in places like Dayton and South Bend, where much of our job as mayor involves shepherding our communities to face difficult transitions.”
That theme was at the heart of Buttigieg’s announcement speech.
“I ran for mayor in 2011 knowing that nothing like Studebaker would ever come back — but believing that we would, our city would, if we had the courage to reimagine our future,” Buttigieg said. “And now, I can confidently say South Bend is back.”
He continued, with shots at Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message.
“It comes from people who think the only way to speak to communities like ours is through resentment and nostalgia,” Buttigieg said. “They’re selling an impossible promise of returning to a bygone era that was never as great as advertised to begin with. The problem is, they’re telling us to look for greatness in all the wrong places.”
Buttigieg also used the speech to reinforce his call to abolish the electoral college and his personal backstory. “I’d say all politics is personal,” he said at one point.
Those Buttigieg served with “cared about whether my M-4 was locked and loaded, not whether I was going home to a girlfriend or a boyfriend.” Buttigieg said. “They just wanted to get home safe, like I did.”
Later in his remarks, addressing both his fast rise in the 2020 race and his sexuality, Buttigieg talked of wanting to go back and talk to himself as a teen: “To tell him that one rainy April day, before he even turns 40, he’ll wake up to headlines about whether he’s rising too quickly as he becomes a top-tier contender for the American presidency. And to tell him that on that day when he announces his campaign for president, he’ll do it with his husband looking on.”
As he worked toward the end of his nearly 40-minute speech, Buttigieg returned to the lessons of South Bend.
“You and I now stand in a city that formally incorporated in 1865, the last year of a war that nearly destroyed this country,” Buttigieg said. “What an act of hope that must have been. We stand on the shoulders of optimistic women and men. Women and men who knew that optimism is not a lack of knowledge, but a source of courage. It takes courage to move on from the past.”
“You and I have the chance to usher in a new American spring,” he said in closing. “So with hope in our hearts and with fire in our bellies, let’s get to work and let’s make history.”