Four years ago, during the era of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Barack Obama’s successor was plotting a political comeback, when he stood in third place in a Democratic congressional primary. But Pete Buttigieg, poised to become the first openly gay leader of a major US political party, is not your average politician.
The 39-year-old former commander in chief of South Bend’s transit system famously quit his post after an absence of a few months to run for mayor. He then won against all odds and out-sold his two rivals.
President Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, last month. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP
Almost exactly a year ago he launched his campaign to become the first openly gay leader of the Democratic party.
Buttigieg on Sunday made history as the first openly gay person to win a major party nomination in either America. He cruised to victory on Saturday in the primary election in South Bend, Indiana, but failed to win the majority of the total votes and will face off against Democrat Jessica Green in November.
Gary West, a Buttigieg supporter who is also managing his campaign, said Buttigieg had a larger agenda than the social issues that have become a focus in other campaigns. “There’s a lot to promote about his own policy agenda and his vision for the future and his ideals,” he said.
The former Uber driver and millennial tech entrepreneur pushed for debt-free college, universal healthcare and free community college tuition. One of the more eye-catching promises, which resonated strongly with Buttigieg’s central constituency of young, first-time voters, was the use of a tax on sugary beverages to pay for free community college.
Buttigieg was hand-picked by then-president Obama as part of his “Bess Obama” program that aimed to build a left-leaning, cool, young team of aides to the White House. Buttigieg’s path to victory was paved by a larger issue, says one campaign supporter: “Colombians who are protected and live in South Bend, and I think a lot of people voted for Pete because they feel they’re part of this historic moment.”
Buttigieg will campaign against a Republican who took 44% of the vote in the Republican mayoral primary and is sure to face an uphill fight against Green, a 38-year-old office manager who garnered 19% of the votes, in November.
Buttigieg will be running on his record as mayor of a small city of 170,000 people, making it something of a stalking horse in a run for national office. Former Senator Evan Bayh, a Democrat and Indiana native who was the state’s attorney general before entering politics, ran in an overwhelmingly Republican district in 2010 and lost to the Tea Party-backed Republican Todd Young.
It remains unclear how Buttigieg would fit into the national Democratic party’s operation, given that he is still without a major professional job and has rarely spoken at national party conventions. No doubt his relationship with Obama, which depends on whether or not he can parlay his success in an Indiana town of fewer than 100,000 residents into a national election, will serve him well as he prepares to take on the national stage.