Mayor thinks he has chops to challenge Trump

DES MOINES — Ascending to the Oval Office is a “seismic jump” for senators and governors and national figures, says the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is in Iowa mulling his own bid for the presidency and making a case for generational change and practical leadership.

“I think the mayor of a city any size has the kind of on-the-ground, front-line, problem-solving executive experience whose absence is on display right now in Washington,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg said in an interview with this newspaper Feb. 8 in the lobby of the Downtown Des Moines Marriott.

Buttigieg, who governs a city of 102,000, the home to Notre Dame University, recently campaigned in Ames, Grinnell, Ankeny and Johnston.

“The biggest thing we’ve got to work on is our democracy itself,” Buttigieg said.

He is not the only current or former Democratic mayor eyeing the White House. 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg both have traveled to Iowa in the last year, as has Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is widely considered another potential Democratic presidential contender.

Senior members of the U.S. House and Senate often have never managed more than 100 people in their lives, Buttigieg said in making the case for mayors.

Buttigieg, elected at age 29 as mayor, said he has more years of experience in government than President Donald Trump.

“I actually believe experience is an important part of the equation,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg said being mayor of a mid-sized city means he’s more involved directly in the day-to-day operations of his city than his peers in large cities.

“You eat what you cook,” he said. “We’re in the neighborhood. I get an earful if I go to the grocery.”

According to his website, Buttigieg, a Rhodes Scholar, studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and holds a bachelor’s degree in history and literature from Harvard, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Buttigieg was born in South Bend.

A former officer in the Naval Reserves, Buttigieg served in Afghanistan. He notes that he would have the most military experience of any president since George H.W. Bush.

“Somebody who has had that war-time experience maybe has a little more credibility in pointing out that we have to end endless war,” Buttigieg said.

He said one reason his campaign resonates is a generational appetite and energy for change and youth.

“It’s not just energy among young voters,” Buttigieg said. “We’re actually finding a lot of older voters are excited about the idea of a younger candidate.”

Senior citizens were a big part of his mayoral races, he said.

Buttigieg would be the first openly gay candidate for a major party were he to earn the Democratic nomination in the coming two years. His husband, Chasten, is a junior high school teacher who has traveled with Buttigieg to Iowa, including on the most recent trip.

Buttigieg said he understands the barrier-breaking aspect of his candidacy but quickly added that his youth, policy ideas and military background are the more interesting features of his public life.

“I think that is historic in its own way, the fact that (being gay) is not the leading thing about my potential candidacy,” Buttigieg said. “It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my story. I think it’s part of how I can relate to a lot of vulnerable groups.”

He added, “I think we are getting toward a day where it (being gay) is not even a thing. (But) we are not there yet, not in Indiana, anyway.”

On one of the more sweeping policy proposals to emerge from Democrats, Buttigieg said the Green New Deal — a plan advanced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts that would eliminate all greenhouse-gas emissions and guarantee jobs for all Americans — is a “great beginning” and a “set of goals.”

“It also, I think, signals a level of urgency that, in my opinion, we ought to have around climate issues,” Buttigieg said. “It really deserves the level of national effort and urgency that we mounted for things like the space program or the Cold War or getting out of the Great Depression.”

For now, Buttigieg is not an official candidate. He’s in the toe-in-the-water stages in Iowa with the formation of an exploratory committee. He wants to gauge response from voters and see whether he can put an effective organizational team together.

“I feel very good about the trajectory,” he said.

If he formally enters the race, Buttigieg said, voters can expect to see him in small towns in Iowa. If rural areas are abandoned to the Republicans, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, he said.

“I think Step 1 is just to show up,” he said. “I think a great mistake my party often made was to leave a lot of areas alone believing that they were just more or less permanently conservative or permanently Republican when actually there’s a great tradition of progressive thinking and progressive activism in rural areas.”

Buttigieg said he thinks his home, the industrial Midwest, is the center of gravity in politics, giving a candidate from that region an advantage in the general election.

“I feel like we have gone from being neglected to being studied with exotic fascination by reporters from the coasts,” Buttigieg said.

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