Just a few months into the 2020 presidential campaign, you might be asking yourself, “Why are we even talking about the mayor of a mid-sized midwestern city?”
Because that mayor is a Rhodes scholar, Ivy League graduate, and a combat veteran.
Because that mayor is as comfortable talking about his faith in God as he is talking about his husband.
Because that mayor is a baby-faced Millennial with a penchant for suits your dad might wear if your dad is a tax attorney with fairly conservative clientele.
And because that mayor is currently surging in early polls, joining Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden at the top of the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls. So Pete Buttigieg has gone from being relatively unknown to being the name on everybody’s lips in the space of a few short months, even though many are still struggling even to pronounce his name correctly (it’s boot-edge-edge if that helps any.)
It takes moxie to believe that a midwestern mayor can ascend to the highest office in America, and Pete Buttigieg has it. Here’s how:
People with moxie are life-long learners.
Given his heritage, it’s not surprising that Buttigieg would value education. His father, Joseph, set out to be a Jesuit priest before becoming a literature professor at Notre Dame. His mother, Anne, is a linguist who was also a professor at Notre Dame for nearly 30 years.
Buttigieg is a graduate of Yale and Oxford in his own right. He’s conversant in several languages and also plays the piano.
But while his academic success is noteworthy, it’s the evidence that his learning extends outside the classroom that catches my attention.
One of Buttigieg’s signature accomplishments as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has been “rightsizing” the city’s housing supply. South Bend never fully recovered from the loss of its Studebaker plant back in the 60s and since then has lost roughly 30 percent of its population. The decline left the city with block after block of vacant and abandoned properties.
Buttigieg launched an ambitious plan to rehab or demolish 1000 blighted properties in 1000 days. While the goal was reached and the effort has cleaned up neighborhoods and improved property values, some raised alarms that it moved too quickly and put significant hardship on less advantaged community members. Regina Williams-Preston was one of those critics, impressed by Buttigieg’s response.
“I think it’s a mark of a true leader to hear that maybe ‘I’m doing something wrong because, quite frankly, there were a lot of mistakes made,” said Williams-Preston in an interview with IndyStar.com. “But what happened was he did slow down and he did listen and he did change course, and so many people would dig in their heels and just kind of keep going.”
It takes moxie to listen and learn, and Buttigieg has it.
It takes moxie to do the right thing, even when it could cost you.
One of the biggest controversies Buttigieg has faced in the office is a dispute over his demotion to South Bend’s police chief. The police chief – the first black police chief in South Bend’s history – had been illegally recording conversations and using those conversations to discipline officers who were making racist comments. Buttigieg also resisted efforts to make the tapes public, citing wiretapping laws.
The situation has placed Buttigieg in the awkward situation of appearing to side with racist officers, a position no elected official wants to be in, especially a Democratic one. It might have been easier for Buttigieg to look the other way. But he was convinced that the recordings were obtained illegally, and he couldn’t condone that action.
It takes moxie for a politician to stand by his convictions, even when the optics aren’t good and votes are on the line.
Moxie takes faith.
In the U.S., where the personal is often political, religion and politics are linked. It’s not unusual for politicians to establish their religious bona fides, particularly politicians on the right. Conservative evangelical Christians are a well-established and influential voting bloc, and they almost always vote for Republicans. Democrat and left-leaning politicians are typically more private about their beliefs, and some on the left view religious folks with distrust.
Buttigieg has put his faith front and center. He was raised nominally Catholic in the shadow of Notre Dame University but embraced the Anglican faith while he was studying at Oxford and found a home in St. James Episcopal Church when he returned home to South Bend.
Buttigieg has set himself up as a foil of sorts to his fellow Hoosier, Vice President Mike Pence. Pence has opposed marriage equality for gays and lesbians, while Buttigieg has been married to his husband Chasten since 2018.
In a recent town hall, Buttigieg said, “Scripture is about protecting the stranger, and the prisoner, and the poor person, and that idea of welcome. That’s what I get in the Gospel when I’m in church.” Of his perception of Pence’s faith, he said that the vice president’s perspective “has a lot more to do with sexuality, and, I don’t know, a certain view or rectitude.”
Buttigieg represents a different Christian perspective than most familiar to American voters. For decades, the religious right has defined being a “faithful Christian” in America. They’ve framed the conversation and represented the values. It takes moxie to think you can reframe the conversation. It remains to be seen whether or not that message resonates with Christians who identify with the religious right, with Christians who don’t, and with those who have rejected Christianity because of the positions taken by the religious right.
More moxie ahead?
Remember a few years ago when another young upstart candidate with an unusual name (Barack Obama) took on a well-known Democratic leader (Hilary Clinton) and won? Buttigieg has momentum and moxie, but that also means he’s got a target on his back, and he’ll be taking fire from the right and the left. Opposition researchers are already trying to dig up dirt on him, and others are saying he is a shallow candidate with little substance. It’s too soon to tell if the 2020 race will repeat, but it’s interesting to watch.
What intrigues you most about Pete Buttigieg?