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-ever gay presidential candidate: 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.”