Pete Buttigieg isn’t likely to be the next Democratic presidential nominee, Most people have no clue who he is, don’t know how to pronounce his name and will be loath to believe that the mayor of a small city has the requisite credentials to run the whole country. Especially at the age of 37.
But “Mayor Pete” from South Bend, Indiana — whose surname is pronounced BUTT-edge-edge — is a welcome addition to the swelling Democratic roster. As an openly gay millennial who served in Afghanistan, he certainly breaks the mold. But it’s what he has said and done during the last few weeks that has truly caught my attention.
Consider his response to the mass murder of Muslim worshippers in New Zealand, an act allegedly committed by a guy who called Donald Trump “a symbol of renewed white identity.” In contrast to Trump — who shrugged off any link between his white nationalist rhetoric and the New Zealand shootings — Buttigieg wrote a touching letter to the Muslim citizens of South Bend.
“I want you to know that this entire City has its arms around you, in love and peace, and that we support you as you practice your faith,” Buttigieg wrote. “We will do everything we can to ensure your safety…The diversity of our community is its strength, and the members of the Islamic community have greatly enriched this City.”
Granted, Trump sets the presidential bar at mud level. Your pet dog could hurdle it. But Buttigieg, as a chief executive tasked with setting the proper moral tone in a time of crisis, has instantly demonstrated that he’s more fit to lead than Individual-1. The citizens of South Bend, in red Indiana, have already vetted his fitness as a leader; in 2015 he came out as gay while running fora second term — and won more than 80 percent of the vote.
But what struck me first was something he said not long ago, during a meet-and-greet in New Hampshire. He was lamenting that Democrats have allowed the GOP to monopolize the word freedom.
“Freedom means a lot to conservatives, but they have such a narrow sense of what it means. They think a lot about freedom from — freedom from government, freedom from regulation — and precious little about freedom to,” Buttigeg said. “Freedom to is absolutely something that has to be safeguarded by good government, just as it could be impaired by bad government.”
Buttigeg cited the freedom to leave a job and start another with portable health coverage, the freedom to make family planning choices “without a male politician or boss imposing their interpretation of their religion” and the freedom to marry a loved one, regardless of sexual orientation.
During an appearance on Fox News Sunday, he cited the freedom to attend school without gun violence, and the freedom to live a quality life without climate change. Speaking for millennials, he told Chris Wallace, “We’re the generation that’s going to be on the business end of the consequences of climate change. We’re also the generation that’s going to be on track to be the first in American history to make less than our parents if nothing is done to change the trajectory of our economy.”
The answer is to “cut carbon emissions before they lead to changes that really destroy our economy and any prospect for people of my generation to do well” — and if that requires radical action to make us as carbon free as possible, such as retrofitting every possible building (creating lots of new jobs for the building trades), then so be it.
“This timetable isn’t being set by Congress. It’s being set by reality,” Buttigeg said.
Perhaps Buttegieg will prove to be a blip on the radar. But for now, it’s refreshing to hear from someone with a totally different set of Democrat credentials, someone who can elevate the tone, articulate common sense, and potentially reverse the debasement of American values. He knows that is the ultimate challenge. As he recently told a journalist, “This (election) cycle is going to test which of the rules are broken forever, and which are going to snap back into place.”
Perhaps he can help with the latter.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at email@example.com.