Politics & Policy

Twenty Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Pete Buttigieg

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg greets voters during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, N.H., March 8, 2019. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Harvard’s X-Men, illegal wiretaps, bailout cheerleading, and Eminem’s ‘anthem of our new life.’

One: South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg’s father, Joseph Buttigieg, immigrated to the United States from Malta and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1979. He was a professor of European literature who taught at New Mexico State and then Notre Dame. The elder Buttigieg was a fan of Manchester United soccer and easily transitioned to become a fan of Notre Dame football. Buttigieg’s mother, Anne Montgomery Buttigieg, was also a professor at Notre Dame for nearly three decades. Joseph Buttigieg passed away in January. Mayor Buttigieg now lives on the same block as his mother and says his mortgage payment on a “large old house facing the river” is $450.

Two: Buttigieg is the youngest candidate in the large Democratic field, born in 1982. He was a child or young man for events that might seem “not that long ago” to many older voters. He remembers an elementary-school teacher explaining that the maps and globes with the label “Soviet Union” were now obsolete. He was ten when Bill Clinton was elected president, a college freshman when George W. Bush was elected president, and a sophomore on 9/11. One of his first jobs out of college was doing research and press work for John Kerry’s presidential campaign; he turned down an offer to work for Barack Obama’s Senate campaign.

Three: In high school, Buttigieg was senior-class president, valedictorian, and president of the school’s chapter of Amnesty International. In his autobiography, Shortest Way Home, he describes his high-school gym teacher as objecting to the group’s focus on “Ay-rabs.” He won an essay contest sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library as part of the organization’s annual Profile in Courage Award. Buttigieg wrote an essay saluting the courage of then-congressman Bernie Sanders, declaring that the congressman’s “real impact has been a reaction to the cynical climate which threatens the effectiveness of the democratic system.” Invited to the JFK library, Buttigieg met Senator Ted Kennedy, and the senator offered him an internship.

His thoughts of running for office started quite early. In Shortest Way Home, Buttigieg writes of his high-school years, “I had begun to wonder what it would be like to be involved in public service directly, instead of reading or watching movies about it. Could political action be a calling, not just the stuff of dinner table talk?”

Four: Buttigieg was accepted to Harvard University and found that his dorm room had previously housed Ulysses Grant Jr., Cornel West, and Horatio Alger. He describes college life in his autobiography like something out of the X-Men: “It began to feel like the academy of X-Men: everyone had some concealed special power: Cate, on the second floor, could read books at four or five times the normal pace. Andrew, on the ground floor, could do a Rubik’s Cube from any starting point in about a minute. Steve, my roommate, was like a science-fiction telepath; he could dissect social interactions and predict with remarkable accuracy how relationships among other freshmen we knew would play out with time.”

Five: Buttigieg became the student president at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, a role described by The New Yorker as being “sought by the most ambitious of the exceptionally ambitious.” At the time the institute was headed by retired senator David Pryor — who is credited with being one of Bill Clinton’s key political mentors. Buttigieg thanks Pryor for providing “the political education we really needed.”

He was a board member of the Harvard College Democrats and protested the war in Iraq. He wrote a regular column for the Harvard Crimson, and in one mocked George W. Bush for his Ivy League elitism in poetry form:

The Blue Blood’s in me through and through
And not just ’cause of Yale;
It’s Kennebunkport, Harvard—
Andover, now there’s my tale . . .
Well, think again, since now you know
The shade of my true colors;
You know that I ignore the Tenets,
Powells and even Muellers.
Instead I heed the dicta of
The most extremist Right.
I kept them quiet in the race
But now I fight their fight.

In another column, Buttigieg raved about rap star Eminem for articulating the cultural zeitgeist: “The anthem of our new life came on an arresting new album from Eminem. Tossing expletives at Dick Cheney and Tipper Gore, Eminem was, as he put it, ‘dumping it on White America,’ building a new narrative — aggressively American, abused, angry and alarming. He warned young Americans to think about a draft, joked about Dick Cheney’s cardiac health, and lashed out at the ‘Divided States of Embarrassment’ for abandoning free speech. The national rhetoric of redemption began to ring hollow as this spokesperson of the Midwestern underclass resonated all the way to Harvard.”

Six: A Rhodes Scholarship took Buttigieg to Oxford, where he describes his education in economics: “One calculus equation at a time, I came to understand in thorough mathematical detail why supply and demand cannot be expected to deliver fair prices or efficient outcomes in many situations. Indeed, even the most orthodox economic theories showed that market failures were all but guaranteed to occur in situations, like health care and education delivery, where a seller has power over a buyer, or a buyer is seeking a service that can’t easily be assigned a dollar value, or the seller and buyer have different levels of information about the product.” Buttigieg finished with a “First,” the highest grade possible.

After Oxford, Buttigieg went to work for McKinsey & Company in Chicago, writing, “despite all my education, I felt ignorant about how the private sector really worked.” This was 2007.

Seven: In 2010, at age 27, Buttigieg ran for state treasurer, which he says “paid less than half of what I’d already been making.” (In 2010, the Indiana state treasurer was paid $68,772 per year.) Buttigieg writes, “No one was pleading with a twenty-seven-year old management consultant to run for statewide office as a Democrat. I just started to think about it and felt like it could make sense.”

Eight: Buttigieg was an outspoken supporter of the auto-industry bailout in 2009 and 2010. Summarizing the decision today, he claims, “with remarkable speed, the government had recovered most of the taxpayer money that had gone into the deal.” The accuracy of that statement depends upon how you define “most.” When the government sold off the last of its shares of stock in the automakers, it had recovered about $70 billion, losing about $10 billion in the process. It is worth noting that while the bailout was being debated, General Motors was manufacturing millions of cars with a dangerous defect in the ignition switch, causing the cars to suddenly stop if the driver’s key chain was too heavy and hiding reports of the defect from federal safety inspectors. The defect led to 124 deaths and the recall of 5 million cars. In 2014, GM recalled nearly 14 million cars for safety reasons.

Writing of Indiana treasurer Richard Mourdock’s decision to file a lawsuit challenging the legality of the bailout, Buttigieg writes, “gripped by ideology, Mourdock simply could not accept that government getting involved could be a good thing, even if it prevented the destruction of thousands of lives.” Mourdock won his bid for reelection against Buttigieg, 62.5 percent to 37.5 percent.

Nine: After his defeat, Buttigieg contemplated his next move and started talking about running for mayor, discussing the matter with South Bend residents and retired Democratic officials. Four weeks after Buttigieg’s defeat in the state-treasurer race, incumbent mayor Stephen Luecke surprised the city by announcing he would not run for a fourth term.

Ten: This list from 2017 ranks South Bend the 299th-largest city in the United States, just behind Wichita Falls, Texas; Rialto, Calif.; and Davenport, Iowa.

Eleven: When Adam Nagourney of the New York Times reviewed Buttigeig’s autobiography, he wrote, “If the underlying point of this book is to draw attention to himself as a future Democratic leader for a party aching for one, then his thumping re-election as mayor in a state Trump captured with 56 percent is quite a selling card.” Except the politics of South Bend and Indiana as a whole are quite different.

Despite the presence of Notre Dame and the perception of Indiana’s overall conservatism, South Bend has been heavily Democratic for a long time.  Every South Bend mayor since 1972 has been a Democrat. All of the members of the Indiana General Assembly currently representing South Bend are Democrats. The city’s congressional district leans more Republican, but St. Joseph’s County, which includes South Bend, is the lone Democratic-leaning county in the district; the rest are more heavily Republican. Former Democratic senator Joe Donnelly used to represent the district.

Twelve: In the mayoral race, Buttigieg faced a state representative, a county councilman, and two lesser-known competitors; the local party deemed him too young and discouraged his interest in the race. Buttigieg saw his name as an advantage: “An unpronounceable, ethnically ambiguous name is practically an asset in northern Indiana politics. Depending upon their own background, people could assume it was Hungarian, Polish, Serbian, Czech, or Belgian — all of which carried their own tribal loyalties in the area.” Buttigieg won a majority in the five-way race.

Thirteen: Three months into the job, Buttigieg ran into his first (and so far, most serious) controversy as mayor. He demoted police chief Darryl Boykins and fired police communications director Karen DePaepe after revelations that the department had illegally recorded various officers’ phone calls. Boykins had allegedly confronted other officers with what they had said on the tapes, and the tapes reportedly include racist comments and discussions of officers breaking the law. The officers went to the FBI, claiming Boykin had illegally wiretapped them.

Buttigieg refused to release the tapes, contending that because they were illegally recorded, they are not subject to public-records laws; under the Federal Wiretap Act, releasing illegally recorded information is a felony. Some African Americans contended this decision amounted to protecting the officers who made the racist remarks and who had allegedly discussed breaking the law in the course of their duties. The South Bend city council subpoenaed the tapes and any Buttigieg documents relating to the decision on Boykins and DePaepe.

The legal fight that followed was the longest-running and most expensive in city history, with more than $2 million in taxpayer money spent on lawyers and significant settlements: “The city government paid four officers said to be on the tapes $500,000 after they sued. The city also settled with the former police chief and communications director over their firings, for $75,000 and $230,000, respectively.” The legal fight over whether the tapes should be releasing or destroyed is still ongoing.

Fourteen: Buttigieg’s record on controlling crime as mayor is mixed. In 2015, South Bend had a murder rate of 16.79 per 100,000 people, ranking it the 29th-worst among the 300 American cities with 100,000 people or more. Buttigieg implemented a version of the “Operation Ceasefire” program touted by David Kennedy.

“Shootings began to rise again in 2016 and 2017, but data from the program suggested it might have been higher otherwise,” Buttigieg writes in Shortest Way Home. “And the whole thing would have been worth it just to get the relationships built among the working group that still meets quarterly to oversee the strategy’s implementation.”

Fifteen: Two years into his first term, the Washington Post labeled Buttigieg “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of.” The profile’s news hook was Buttigieg’s impending six-month deployment to Afghanistan as a naval reservist, and it touted South Bend’s new 311 city information line and its plan to deal with 1,000 vacant lots and abandoned buildings in 1,000 days.

Buttigieg declared local government to be the next frontier of youthful energy and cutting-edge innovation: “In the 60s, you would go to NASA, in the 90s you would go to Silicon Valley, now these people are interested in working in local government.”

Buttigieg’s former chief of staff and campaign manager was Mike Schmuhl, who had previously worked at the Washington Post’s public relations department.

Sixteen: By 2016, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote a column entitled “The First Gay President?” and praised Buttigieg in tones that made the coverage of Beto O’Rourke look restrained and even-handed, beginning, “if you went into some laboratory to concoct a perfect Democratic candidate, you’d be hard pressed to improve on Pete Buttigieg, the 34-year-old second-term mayor of this Rust Belt city, where he grew up and now lives just two blocks from his parents.”

Bruni wrote that Buttigieg “seems always to say just the right thing, in just the right tone” and that “the daunting scope of his distinctions may be his greatest liability.”

Seventeen: After Trump’s election, Buttigieg announced he would run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, urging his party to not “relitigate old battles” such as the split between the factions that preferred Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. (Buttigieg endorsed Clinton late in the primary.) The day before the DNC vote, Buttigieg withdrew from the campaign, declaring he had not accumulated enough support to be competitive.

Eighteen: Buttigieg told The New Yorker that one of his big themes for his campaign will be “intergenerational justice,” which he emphasizes shouldn’t being about “generational conflict.” His proposals include abolishing the Electoral College and instituting single-payer health care. He said he’s open to statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and appointing more than nine justices to the Supreme Court because “in some ways it’s no more a shattering of norms than what’s already been done to get the judiciary to where it is today.”

Nineteen: In the same interview, Buttigieg said he sees his youth and post–Cold War worldview as a strength, primarily a willingness to examine options for the role of government unthinkable to previous generations: “It is very pragmatic to look around and say, well, the countries that do this tend to be better than the countries that don’t. The system we have isn’t working very well; we ought to try this other system. Politically, it’s never been possible, because it’s been considered socialism, and socialism was a kill switch. Our generation did not live through the Cold War in the same way.”

Twenty: Discussing his experience campaigning statewide and attending many county Democratic parties’ traditional Jefferson-Jackson dinners, he laments that the events are named after “two morally problematic men,” former presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

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