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Meet 37-year-old Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, who thinks he can become the youngest US president ever

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

On Sunday, Pete Buttigieg officially announced a 2020 presidential bid. "They call me Mayor Pete," Buttigieg said at a rally inside a factory formerly owned by automaker Studebaker. "I am a proud son of South Bend, Indiana. And I am running for President of the United States."

Buttigieg was elected mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in 2011 when he was 29. He won nearly 74 percent of the vote, and became the youngest mayor of U.S. city with at least 100,000 residents.

"I belong to a generation that is stepping forward right now," Buttigieg said in a video announcement of his exploratory committee released in January. "We're the generation that lived through school shootings, that served in the wars after 9/11. And we're the generation that stands to be the first to make less than our parents — unless we do something different."

The 37-year-old wants voters to make choosing him that something different. Were he to win the nomination, Buttigieg, who is gay, would be the first out politician to vie for the presidency from a major political party. Were he to win the presidency, he would become the youngest president in U.S. history.

As CNBC reported on Sunday, recent polling from New Hampshire and Iowa show Buttigieg in third among the Democratic party's voters, behind Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, but ahead of well known candidates including Elizabeth Warren and Beto O'Rourke. And earlier this month, Buttigieg announced he had raised more than $7 million since declaring his candidacy in January.

While his policies are informed by his personal experiences, he's banking on the fact that voters from every part of the ideological spectrum will care more about finding pragmatic solutions to huge challenges — the skill he prides himself on — than any of that.

Buttigieg spoke with CNBC Make It about college costs, climate change, and why someone his age could be uniquely well-positioned to take on the challenges facing the next president of the United States.

"Not someone else's problem"

Born in 1982, Buttigieg (pronounced "boot-edge-edge") is a millennial. He says his place among the oft-maligned generation, rather than being a hindrance, gives him a sense of urgency and a "personal appreciation of the stakes."

"When your generation is literally the one that will be on the business end of climate change," says Buttigieg, "you just look at things differently."

He thinks it's the proverbial ticking clock of crises like climate change and crushing student debt that's made younger voters more amenable to creative problem-solving and less adverse to policies that might be quickly dismissed by older voters as smacking of socialism.

"In an older generation during the Cold War, you could kill an idea by saying it was socialist," he says. "I think in our generation we just want to know if it's a good idea, and the name-calling doesn't work as much because it doesn't have that same kind of horrifying connotation. It's not just like a kill switch on a substantive debate."

Buttigieg says that many of the major policy decisions being made currently "are going to cash out in my lifetime." He recalls seeing a tweet dismissing the severity of a cavity under the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica that could threaten the safety of coastal cities around the world — the glacier, the user argued, isn't supposed to collapse for another 50 years. "I might be here in 50 years!" he says. "I definitely will. This is not someone else's problem."

He sees a similar need for immediate ways to address the mounting costs of college — which he says "is too expensive for too many people" — as well as the growing student debt crisis.

Pete Buttigieg
Source: Pete Buttigieg campaign

"College is supposed to be the gateway to the middle class for a lot of Americans," says Buttigieg. "Beginning with the G.I. Bill, more people of any background could access education, and with it a better standard of living. Now, it's almost become a marker of whatever class you already come from, when you look at the disparities of who can get in and who completes college and who could afford it."

Buttigieg says he would support an expansion of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, through which graduates could exchange public service for forgiveness of government loans, making it "a social norm that anybody would put in a year after high school with some kind of service. We would fuse those with a with a major break on college costs, tuition or debt."

A personal understanding of what's at stake

In 2015, as the Supreme Court prepared to release a decision on same-sex marriage, Buttigieg came out in a widely-circulated op-ed in the South Bend Tribune. "I was well into adulthood before I was prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that I am gay," he wrote. "It took years of struggle and growth for me to recognize that it's just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am."

He wrote at the time that he was unaccustomed to viewing his sexuality as anyone else's business, but that he saw the opportunity to do good by speaking about it openly. Now Buttigieg, who married husband Chasten Glezman in June 2018 at the Cathedral of St. James in South Bend, says his identity has deepened that sense of political urgency.

"When the most important thing in your life, your marriage, exists by the grace of a single vote on the Supreme Court, you have a very personal understanding of what's at stake in American politics."

Another example of understanding the stakes: "I'm also one of the only people in this conversation has been sent to war on the orders of an American president." Buttigieg took an unpaid leave from the mayor's office to deploy to Afghanistan in 2014 with the U.S. Navy Reserve, in which he had served since 2009.

Source: Pete Buttigieg campaign

But while his marriage and his military service drive key dimensions of his platform, Buttigieg says it's actually his Midwestern roots and time as the mayor of South Bend that have shaped his approach to government most. He says that while President Trump has tried to appeal to voters' "nostalgia" about the middle of country, cities like his find success when they focus on what's ahead.

"The story of a place like South Bend — you know, exactly the kind of so-called 'Rustbelt City' that was being given up on — our story actually shows that there's a different way, that you can focus on the future, make your peace with the fact that there's no going back and come out ahead for it."

Getting voters to bet on a newcomer

A Morning Consult poll of over 150,000 registered Democrats conducted between March 4th and 10th found that just 1 percent of voters considered Buttigieg their top candidate. A majority — 62 percent — hadn't heard of him.

That may be changing. After appearing at a CNN town hall in which he called Vice President Mike Pence a "cheerleader of the porn star presidency," he was, according to the Indianapolis Star, "the subject of more Google searches during and in the 24 hours after his town hall than were each of three top Democrats: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris."

Obama strategist David Axelrod tweeted during the televised event that Buttigieg was "crisp, thoughtful and relatable" and would be "a little less of a longshot tomorrow." Following the town hall, according to CNN, Buttigieg raised more than $600,000 from over 22,200 donations within 24 hours.

After Howard Schultz said during a radio appearance that he had spent more time with the military in the past decade than any of the other presidential candidates, Buttigieg fired back, tweeting, "I don't recall seeing any Starbucks over there..."

Schultz later apologized to Buttigieg and candidate Tulsi Gabbard, who served in the Hawaii Army National Guard.

Still, he's going to have to work to stand out in a field that already includes over a dozen candidates — including well-known legislators like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris and superstar newcomer Beto O'Rourke — vying for the Democratic nomination. Several of his opponents have already built impressive war-chests in record time.

But Buttigieg says the crowd is actually an advantage. "I think the more crowded it is, the more room there is for newcomers and underdogs. I think it's not an accident that with so many well-known figures in the mix, still no one has been able to consolidate even a strong plurality."

He also enjoys something many other candidates do not: a record of support from voters at both ends of the political spectrum. "There are a lot of people [in Indiana] who voted for Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Mike Pence and me," he says. "Voters are not organizing all of their thinking along ideological lines."

He's hoping that his experience heading up a city government, rather than coming from a state or federal office, will give him an edge among those voters. Mayors, and those working at the city level, he says, spend so much time focused on problem-solving "we almost don't have enough time to stop and check whether something reads as left or right."

Will voters be willing to do the same? Buttigieg is optimistic.

"I think sometimes, pragmatism actually takes you to a place that might be further out in the ideological space than people think."

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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
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