Pete Buttigieg’s historic candidacy rounds out 2019

Pete Buttigieg at Reading Terminal Market Photo: Kelly Burkhardt

“If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”

That statement on electability by Pete Buttigieg was one of the big applause lines of the night at the Democratic debate in Los Angeles on Dec. 19. At the last debate of the year, the South Bend, Indiana mayor traded barbs with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). The two candidates are among the 15 remaining candidates vying for the critical Iowa caucus vote Feb. 3 — the first votes to be cast in the 2020 Democratic primary. As the two native Midwesterners in the race, Buttigieg and Klobuchar have an edge in the neighborhood.

But it is “Mayor Pete” who is polling first in Iowa. “The gay dude from Mike Pence’s Indiana” has beaten conventional wisdom about straight America not being ready for an openly gay candidate. He has been on a steady trajectory into the top-tier of the Democratic primary since September, superseding a surprising number of very strong competitors who have since withdrawn, including early favorites Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX).

Buttigieg now polls in the top four nationally and first in that critical early state next door. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Buttigieg could be the Democratic nominee or tapped to be the vice-presidential choice of another candidate.

Buttigieg didn’t have a good debate in Los Angeles — he was a target of other candidates and at times sounded defensive, particularly about his big-money fundraisers and his own experience as a politician compared with other candidates. Still, the fact that Buttigieg is not only still in the race, but has risen into fourth place nationally is one of the biggest national LGBTQ news stories of the year.

As the LGBTQ community celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, a married gay man from the Midwest running for president sounded fantastical at the beginning of 2019. As the year ends, his candidacy is a statement about broader acceptance for LGBTQ people — more LGBTQ people were elected in 2019 than ever — as well as for Buttigieg himself, who has also raised more money for his campaign than frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The Indiana native checks a lot of boxes for Democratic voters. At 37, he is the youngest candidate, 40 years younger than Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). (As a junior-high student, he won a national award for an essay about Sanders.) He’s a Harvard graduate and a Rhodes scholar. He served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 2009 to 2017 and served in Afghanistan in 2014. He was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal and the Joint Meritorious Unit Award. He achieved the rank of lieutenant, and some of his service was under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which was repealed at the end of 2011.

Buttigieg has been mayor of South Bend since Jan. 1, 2012. With a population of 101,860 in 2019, South Bend is the fourth largest city in Indiana. He was the youngest mayor ever elected in a city of over 100,000.

Buttigieg previously worked on the presidential campaigns of John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2007. Obama has cited him as one of the “important talents” in the 2020 race.

In 2015, Buttigieg met junior-high teacher Chasten Glezman. The two became engaged in December 2017 and were married in June 2018. Chasten uses Buttigieg’s surname and has fast become a social media maven and star in his own right as he campaigns with his husband.

The significance of Buttigieg’s candidacy cannot be overstated. The barrier he’s broken by being the first out gay man to run for president is a game-changer. Americans seeing a gay man kissing his spouse — another man — on the national stage is a massive moment of visibility for LGBTQ people.

Yet Buttigieg being on a debate stage where LGBTQ rights are being debated — when it’s his lived experience — exemplifies how much more work needs to be done for LGBTQ people. A supporter of the Equality Act, Buttigieg has spoken about it in debates and on the campaign trail. He has also spoken movingly about how he organized a mayoral blood donation drive and was barred from donating because of the ban on gay men donating blood.

Politically, Buttigieg is the antithesis of President Trump: A voracious reader who speaks several languages, a fierce defender of climate science and proponent of immediate climate action and a staunch supporter of women’s reproductive rights; he has fluency in issues foreign and domestic.

While Trump has been waging war on women, Buttigieg has spoken out in support of them. After Alabama banned abortion services in the state, Buttigieg said that it was “ignoring science, criminalizing abortion and punishing women.”

Buttigieg’s low polling with Black voters and his sometimes tone-deaf comments on racial issues has been a problem for the candidate and signaled as such in the Black press. In the November debate, he said during a discourse on race, “I do not have the experience of ever being discriminated against because of the color of my skin, but I do have the experience of feeling like a stranger in my own country — turning on the news and seeing my own rights coming up for debate.”

Many thought he was comparing homophobia to racism, which engendered pushback from both Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NY).

Yet despite some missteps and poor debates, Buttigieg’s presence in the race is historical, and the impact — whatever the outcome in 2020 — lasting. 

As Buttigieg said in the November debate, “You’re looking at someone who, as a young man growing up, wondered if something deep inside of him meant that he would forever be an outsider, would never wear the uniform, never know love. And now you are looking at that same young man — a veteran, a mayor, happily married, asking for your vote for President of the United States.”

Previous articlePGN’s top 5 stories of the year
Next articleThe Many ‘Scenes’ Captured in 2019
Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.