Meet Pete Buttigieg, the young, gay veteran and Midwest mayor who wants to take on Trump in 2020

Key Points
  • As a Midwestern small-city mayor who is also young, gay, progressive and a veteran, Buttigieg believes his story and experience are what's needed to beat President Donald Trump on the Democratic ticket.
  • Like other Democrats running for president in 2020, Buttigieg says he supports the "premise" of the "Green New Deal" but notes that "it's also a beginning, right?"
  • Buttigieg says he would also raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, many of whom he says "do not pay their fair share."
2020 presidential candidate South Bend (IN) Mayor Pete Buttigieg waves after delivering remarks at the United States Conference of Mayors winter meeting in Washington, January 24, 2019.
Yuri Gripas | Reuters

Like any number of other Democrats who have already jumped into the 2020 race, presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg holds progressive views on climate change, income inequality and health care.

What sets his exploratory committee apart from the sprawling list of would-be challengers to President Donald Trump? The young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, says it's his approach.

"I'm conscious of the fact that at no other moment in the last hundred years would somebody like me be taken seriously in this conversation," Buttigieg, pronounced "BOOT-a-jedge," told CNBC in an interview Friday.

"There's clearly something different. There's an appetite for a new generation."

He's not just referring to his age — though at 37 years old, he barely qualifies for the presidency under the Constitution's minimum of 35.

I understand this is an underdog project, but I would also say that in a season like this ... the less you resemble what's come before, the better.
Pete Buttigieg
Indiana mayor and 2020 presidential hopeful

As a Midwestern mayor reshaping a small manufacturing town that was enervated in the early 1960s by the abandonment of now-defunct carmaker Studebaker, Buttigieg believes his story and experience are what's needed to beat Trump on the Democratic ticket.

Buttigieg is a Rhodes Scholar and Afghanistan War veteran who can boast of being the country's youngest mayor of a city of South Bend's size when he was elected in 2011 at age 29.

And if he wins the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay presidential candidate nominated by a major party. He came out in a local paper's op-ed pages in 2015 amid his re-election campaign for mayor, and married his husband, Chasten Glezman, in June.

He's also an undiluted progressive in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 election. To be fair, South Bend is located in the relatively liberal hamlet of St. Joseph County — the city is a stone's throw from the University of Notre Dame and hasn't had a Republican mayor since 1972. Still, Buttigieg chalks his electoral success up to his willingness to innovate in a city whose economic engine had long ago stalled out.

"When I took office, you know, in the community the conversation was about whether we could get back to some version of our days making Studebakers in the '60s," he said. "And we had to be very honest about the fact that that sort of economy was not coming back."

After banning the phrase "we've always done it that way" from his government's vernacular, Buttigieg worked to push the city in a more tech-friendly direction. The city launched a public data portal in 2013, for instance, and more recently has committed to plans to build a tech hub at Ignition Park that were sparked by Buttigieg's predecessor.

The efforts to change South Bend are delivering, at least by one metric: More people are moving in.

South Bend lost nearly a quarter of its population in the wake of Studebaker's departure in 1963 — down to about 100,000 by 2010. But in 2015, an Indiana University demographer reported that the city had grown in three of the past four years.

"We've been able to do things with data and technology that have improved the lives of our residents," Buttigieg said. "I think that's the style of government and leadership that would be pretty welcomed in Washington right now."

His resume aside, Buttigieg faces a daunting uphill battle.

A small-city mayor has never before won the presidency, let alone one who still has microscopic name recognition compared to his Democratic opponents, or Trump. Same goes for his age — no one in their 30s has ever won the presidency. And an openly gay man has never come close to winning a U.S. presidential election.

"He's an upcoming star in the Democratic Party," said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, but a successful presidential bid is "not likely, because nobody knows who he is."

Buttigieg concedes that his bid is a long shot.

"I understand this is an underdog project," he said, "but I would also say that in a season like this, the less you resemble the others, the less you resemble what's come before, the better."

On the issues

Buttigieg's views on climate change, taxes and health care prove his progressive credentials — though they're not as far left as other candidates.

Less than a month after announcing his exploratory committee, Buttigieg hasn't put forth a point-by-point policy agenda yet, nor has he officially launched his presidential campaign (though he claims the latter is coming soon).

He says that's by design. In a recent ABC interview, Buttigieg explained the importance of laying out a set of values before diving into "the 14-point plan," a trap he says his party too often falls into. His key values as a candidate are democracy, security and freedom — specifically, asserting a progressive definition of "freedom to" as opposed to conservatism's "freedom from."

"Freedom to start a new business because you have health care figured out," Buttigieg gave as one example when asked by CNBC. "Freedom to marry the person you love."

I think the way it's been laid out in that resolution is a great framework, but it's also a beginning, right?
Pete Buttigieg
on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's "Green New Deal"

He frames himself and his campaign as distinct from his Democratic competitors, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Yet when asked about his views on a handful of major policy subjects, his views tended to align closely with theirs.

Like those candidates, Buttigieg said he supports the "premise" of the "Green New Deal," the ambitious resolution proffered by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to uproot and re-plant the U.S. economy with a focus on addressing climate change and the environment.

Booker, Harris, Warren and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York have all co-sponsored the resolution. Buttigieg, however, took a more nuanced position.

"I think the way it's been laid out in that resolution is a great framework, but it's also a beginning, right? It's more a set of goals and principles than it is a particular policy, and that's fine," Buttigieg said.

But what they "get right," he said, "is that there really is a state of emergency when it comes to our climate, and we need to recognize that that calls for an emergency level of resources and attention."

Similarly, his support for universal health care isn't so hard-line as that of, say, Kamala Harris.

Where Harris advocated eliminating private insurance altogether as part of her "Medicare for All" proposal, Buttigieg said in a recent interview that "I don't see why" having universal health care "requires" doing away with private insurance.

He said specifically that he's not calling for government-provided health care. "The simplest way to think about it is," he said, "if Medicare today includes Medicare supplemental, why wouldn't Medicare for all include a Medicare supplement for all who want it?"

Buttigieg would also raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, many of whom he says "do not pay their fair share" to the Internal Revenue Service.

"I think there's a lot to be said for changing the balance of what we tax wealth versus work," he said.

Asked if there's any room for tax cuts, Buttigieg said, "There's a lot to be said for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit" or even proposing a negative income tax for some.

Indiana Nice

In interviews and promotional materials, Buttigieg clearly paints himself as a disruptive candidate. His website envisions "a new generation of American leadership" and even describes Buttigieg as a "millennial Mayor."

Yet Buttigieg's presence and rhetoric are a far cry from the sort of polemical bluster that one might expect a disruptor to employ.

In his campaign videos, his voice is usually calm; in his answers, he's often professorial. Even when tagging along with road workers to fill one of thousands of potholes that cropped up after a midwinter thaw, Buttigieg's volume rarely modulated as he explained not only the four steps to filling a pothole, but the policy that funds this city function, as well.

Buttigieg TWEET Contending with one of the leading enemies of the American mayor: the common pothole.

"I would call it inclusive," Buttigieg said when asked why his rhetoric appears tamer than other candidates.

"I think we need to have language that people can understand and get on board with," he added. "That's how you govern in a place like South Bend."