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Millennial Mayor Pete Buttigieg Ready For White House Run

[Photo: ideastream]

You've likely heard the names of several of the candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. The list of possible candidates is large and diverse -- and includes a number of long shots, like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

At 37, Buttigieg is the youngest contender in the group and the first openly gay candidate to run for the presidency. He was elected mayor of South Bend, a city of about 100 thousand residents, in 2011. He's an immigrant's son, a Harvard grad and a Rhodes Scholar, who served seven months in Afghanistan as a Navy intelligence officer. How does this "millennial mayor" -- a man with no Washington experience from the most Republican-leaning state in the upper Midwest -- hope to become the Democratic nominee next year? Buttigieg talked about his prospects and the perspective he brings to the race with ideastream's Joe Frolik.

JOE FROLIK: There are lots of Democrats running for president. What experience or perspective will you bring that no one else will?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: As somebody from a generation that has a direct personal stake in what the world will look like in, for example 2054, which is when I reach the current age of the current president, I think you come at some of these issues a little bit differently. You know, I belong to the school shooting generation. I was in high school when Columbine happened. I belong to the generation that economically stands potentially to be the first in history to be worse off than our parents in America, unless we change the trajectory of our economy and our society. So I think that perspective is one that belongs in this conversation. I also think that more of the Midwestern perspective is going to be important, especially for a party, my party, that really lost touch with this part of the country to our dismay in the 2016 cycle. And I think that of a mayor, somebody who is on the ground as an executive in government. I think a mayor of any size has a lot of the experience most relevant to this office. I get that it's not a traditional route compared to say being in the Congress. But I would argue the more Washington and Congress start looking like our best run cities and towns, versus the other way around, the better off we're going to be.

FROLIK: In your book, "The Shortest Way Home," you've been talking about intergenerational justice as a foundational idea of a campaign. What's that mean when you talk about that?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, consider some of the choices that have been made recently in Washington. Choices to give tax cuts that are unaffordable to America's wealthiest. Those bills are going to come due. And they're going to come due during our lifetime, so we need to make sure that decisions are being made that are a little bit more responsible to future generations. And when you think about climate, I think for the longest time climate policy has been made or in some cases ignored, as with the current administration. Almost with an attitude that it's someone else's problem. I think that if you're my age or younger, or frankly anybody who's alive today, we're beginning to realize it's very much our problem today.

FROLIK: You mentioned urban issues, what are some of the things you would want to do that would benefit cities, especially older Great Lakes cities like South Bend or Cleveland?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, South Bend is a city, we're best known because of the university and football team maybe, but we're actually characteristic of a lot of cities like Ohio cities. We were a company town for Studebaker and our growth really revolved around the auto industry until we lost most of that industry in the 60s. And it took us 50 years to begin to find our way out of that. The lessons I learned growing up in a community that's been through those economic shocks is that we need a more robust and resilient system for our economy to accommodate the changes that are frankly still picking up steam. This is a national concern, but one that I think in many ways is solved in our local communities. What we need is a national strategy for making sure everything from our education and training to our national, cultural and societal life supports and is more resilient for a generation that's likely to change careers than my parents generation even changed jobs.

FROLIK: What do you think as a mayor, the experience of having that job for two terms, how would that shape the way you perhaps would be the leader of the free world?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, when you're a mayor, especially a mayor in a system like ours, it means you're the one who gets the call. It means you're the one who gets the call. At any given moment, you could be working on an economic development project for an industrial area and get a call about an officer involved shooting with racial sensitivities, or a weather emergency, or an airplane crashing into a neighborhood. You are not only at that tactical level helping make to sure that the city succeeds, but also at the symbolic and even moral level, doing the job that I think is also the most important part of the presidency, which is bringing people together and calling the nation to its highest values.

FROLIK: Looking at your military experience, you were midway through your first term in office when you were called to active duty and sent to Afghanistan. How does that inform the way you approach your job and your campaign?

BUTTIGIEG: First of all, when it comes to foreign policy, if you have had that experience of being sent to war on the orders of a U.S. president, I think you have an intimate understanding of how human lives are shaped by political decisions and you don't take them lightly. Secondly is the fact that when I was deployed, part of my responsibility was a lot of convoy and vehicle movements outside the wire. The people that got into my vehicle didn't care whether I was going home to a boyfriend or girlfriend. They didn't care what country my father had immigrated from. The only thing they cared about was whether I could do my job. And we learned to trust each other with our lives, even though we were very different people and yet it brought us together. Third, I think military experience just positions me to have a richer understanding of the security challenges we face as a country, which by the way include not only things like border security, or military relationships, or counter terrorism which was my specialty as an intelligence officer. But also forms of security that upsettlingly the other side of the aisle doesn't seem prepared to talk about at all. Whether we're talking about climate security or cyber security, 21st century security h as a lot more to it than the sorts of things you can resolve by putting up a fence or a wall.

FROLIK: You're the first openly gay candidate to seek the presidency. How much does that identity... that otherness, how does that affect the way you approach this race and the way you look at public service?

BUTTIGIEG: For one thing, it's another of example of why I never forget why politics matters, why we even have politics -- which is the impact it can have on everyday life. Because the most important thing in my everyday life, which is my marriage, is something that only exists by the grace of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court. And I think we need more of that ground level awareness in politics. That every decision that's made in Washington matters, not because it moves somebody up or down or its implications for the power dynamics in the halls of Congress, but because real lives go differently. And I think when you've had that experience, of having your... one of the most intimate things in your life shaped by other people's decisions, people in power. That really gives you a better understanding.

FROLIK: You'd be running in the primaries against a lot of people who have these classic resumes. What's the realistic path for you to become the nominee for the Democratic party?

BUTTIGIEG: I'm just not sure this is the time when having a conventional background or lots of Washington time under your belt is really going to help. There are certainly some features of potential candidacy for me that would be unusual. But is it really any more exotic to have the youngest president in American history than it is to have the oldest, which we have right now. I t's certainly far less exotic to have a war veteran who is a mayor in a city in the Midwest than a reality television star who has never served in uniform or in government for a day in his life. This is a season for unconventional candidacies, but I would argue I'm certainly more in line with the American political tradition than some of what we've been seeing lately. As far as the competitive field, I think it's meaningful with all of these extremely famous and established people in the race, no one has been able to command a decisive majority. Many polls recently have suggested that the top choice of voters is a category called someone entirely new, and I'm nothing if not someone entirely new on the national scene.

stephanie.jarvis@ideastream.org | 216-916-6340