South Bend, Ind. — 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.
Education? He has a bachelor’s from Harvard and a master’s from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.
Public service? He’s a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve. For seven months in 2014, he was deployed to Afghanistan — and took an unpaid leave from work in order to go.
He regularly attends Sunday services at his Episcopal church. He runs half-marathons. His TEDx talk on urban innovation in South Bend is so polished and persuasive that by the end of it, you’ve hopped online to price real estate in the city.
And though elective office was in his sights from early on, he picked up some experience in the private sector, including two years as a consultant with McKinsey. He describes that job in politically pitch-perfect terms, as an effort to learn how money moves and how data is mined most effectively.
Two years ago, The Washington Post called him “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of.”
And that was before he came out. He told his constituents that he was gay in an op-ed that he wrote for the local newspaper last June, during his re-election campaign. Then he proceeded, in November, to win 80 percent of the vote — more than the first time around.
The breaking of barriers was the story of last week, as Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. There are more milestones to come: for women, for blacks, for Hispanics, for other minorities.
Although voters in Wisconsin elevated an openly lesbian candidate, Tammy Baldwin, to the United States Senate, and Oregon’s governor has described herself as bisexual, no openly gay, lesbian or bisexual person has ever emerged as a plausible presidential candidate.
How soon might that change? Could we look up a dozen or more years from now and see a same-sex couple in the White House?
I’d wondered in the abstract, and after a veteran Democratic strategist pointed me toward Buttigieg as one of the party’s brightest young stars, I wondered in the concrete.
He probably winced when he read that: At no point during my visit with him last week did he express such a grand political ambition or define himself in terms of his sexual orientation.
“I’m not interested in being a poster boy,” he told me. He has not, since his op-ed, spoken frequently or expansively about being gay.
He doesn’t hide it, though. His partner, Chasten Glezman, a middle-school teacher, moved in with him this year and sometimes accompanies him to public events.
One day Buttigieg popped into Glezman’s classroom with an offering from Starbucks. That night, he got an email fuming that the children had been unnecessarily exposed to certain ideas.
He wrote back “explaining how what I was doing was the same kind of thing a straight couple would do,” he told me. “I didn’t go in there to discuss L.G.B.T. issues. I went in there to bring a cup of coffee to somebody that I love.”
“But it was one of those moments,” he added, “when I realized we can’t quite go around as if it were the same.”
South Bend is Indiana’s fourth largest city and abuts the University of Notre Dame, where both of Buttigieg’s parents have taught. It was once famous for its Studebaker auto assembly plant, but that closed more than half a century ago, prompting a painful decline.
Buttigieg has worked to reverse it. His “1,000 houses in 1,000 days” campaign demolished or repaired that many abandoned homes. New construction and the dazzling River Lights public art installation, which bathes a cascading stretch of South Bend’s principal waterway in a rainbow of hues, are reinvigorating the city center. And the old Studebaker plant is at long last being renovated — into a mix of office, commercial, residential and storage space.
All of that could set Buttigieg up for a Senate or gubernatorial bid down the line. So could his sharp political antenna. He saw the future: In 2000, he won the nationwide J.F.K. Profile in Courage Essay Contest for high school students with a tribute to a certain congressman named Bernie Sanders.
“Politicians are rushing for the center, careful not to stick their necks out on issues,” he wrote, exempting Sanders and crediting him with the power “to win back the faith of a voting public weary and wary of political opportunism.”
He seems always to say just the right thing, in just the right tone. When I asked why he signed up for the Navy Reserve, he cited his experience canvassing for Barack Obama in Iowa in 2008.
“So many times, I would knock and a child would come to the door — in my eyes, a child — and we’d get to talking and this kid would be on his way to basic training,” he remembered. “It was like this whole town was emptying itself out into the military.” But very few of the people he knew from Harvard or Oxford signed up.
When I asked where the Democratic Party errs, he said that too many Democrats “are not yet comfortable working in a vocabulary of ‘freedom.’ Conservatives talk about freedom. They mean it. But they’re often negligent about the extent to which things other than government make people unfree.”
“And that is exactly why the things we talk about as Democrats matter,” he continued. “You’re not free if you have crushing medical debt. You’re not free if you’re being treated differently because of who you are. What has really affected my personal freedom more: the fact that I don’t have the freedom to pollute a certain river, or the fact that for part of my adult life, I didn’t have the freedom to marry somebody I was in love with? We’re talking about deep, personal freedom.”
HE also challenged the degree to which some Democrats “participate in the fiction that if we just turn back the clock and get rid of trade, everybody can get their manufacturing jobs back. There are a lot of people who think they lost their jobs because of globalization when they actually lost their jobs because of technology.”
The solution, he said, isn’t isolationism, protectionism and nostalgia. It’s new skills and a next generation of products and services.
Did I mention that he speaks passable Arabic? Or that he’s an accomplished musician who played piano with the South Bend Symphony Orchestra in 2013 for a special performance of “Rhapsody in Blue”?
Or that he recently won a J.F.K. New Frontier Award, given annually to a few Americans under 40 whose commitment to public service is changing the country?
The daunting scope of his distinctions may be his greatest liability. (How many accolades named after J.F.K. can one man collect?)
That and his precociousness. Before his mayoralty, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for state treasurer of Indiana. He was 28.
So he’s not the most relatable pol in the pack. The laboratory would fix that.
Or maybe he’s fixing it himself. I last saw him at South Bend’s minor league baseball park, where he was chowing down on an all-American supper of nachos smothered in strips of fatty beef and a pale yellow goo. It looked like training for the Iowa State Fair.
Give him some Tums. And keep an eye on him.