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Meet Pete Buttigieg: A gay mayor, Afghan War vet and millennial who's running for president

South Bend's young leader vowed not to repeat Hillary Clinton's mistakes, said he felt a "sense of urgency" to fix the nation's problems.
Image: Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, arrives at a news conference on Jan. 23, 2019 in Washington, DC.Alex Wong / Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, became the first openly gay candidate in the 2020 presidential race Wednesday, joining an already crowded field of Democratic hopefuls.

Buttigieg, whose name is pronounced “BOOT-edge-edge,” is better known as “Mayor Pete” in South Bend, where he was elected in 2011. He’s 37, which makes him a millennial and just old enough to become president (the minimum age is 35). He married his partner, Chasten Glezman, in 2018 and livestreamed the wedding.

For the past several years, Democratic leaders, including former President Barack Obama, have called him an example of the future of the Democratic Party. His status as the first millennial presidential candidate is central in the video he released Wednesday announcing the formation of an exploratory committee.

"We can't look for greatness in the past," Buttigieg said in his announcement video. "Right now, our country needs a fresh start."

While Buttigieg has not released his platform, he says it will focus on three pillars: freedom, democracy and security. In a conversation with NBC News, he spoke favorably of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

Buttigieg said that members of the millennial generation like himself “have a different sense of urgency about fixing our country’s problems.”

The millennial generation is not only the first to make less than their parents, Buttigieg said, but it also “grew up with school shootings,” will have to “pay the bill of these tax cuts for the wealthiest” and will have a “lifetime of impact from climate change,” all of which he called “time bombs” for his generation.

When he was elected mayor eight years ago, Buttigieg was only 29. He described South Bend as a very diverse, largely low-income community that “never recovered from losing auto factories” — in this case a Studebaker plant that closed in the 1960s. But under his leadership, he says, the city has “changed its trajectory.”

“The national media often misrepresents us as a part of the country where looking backward is all we know how to do,” Buttigieg said. Riffing on the president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, Buttigieg said that in the most successful Midwestern cities, “there’s no such thing as ‘again’ — you can’t turn back the clock.”

One “again” he hopes to avoid: repeating the “horrible mistake” of the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton ignored the industrial Midwest in the race for the White House.

“I’m from the Midwest, so these issues of making sure that we have a positive way forward for workers and families in the industrial Midwest — this is not theoretical for me, it’s my home,” Buttigieg said.

If Buttigieg were to overcome the long odds and become the Democratic nominee for president, he would be the first openly gay nominee and the first veteran of the Afghanistan War, where he served a tour as a Naval Reserve officer. When he was elected mayor in 2011, he was still in the closet. Just before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, Buttigieg came out in a column in the local newspaper.

“I was well into adulthood before I was prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that I am gay,” Buttigieg wrote at the time. “It took years of struggle and growth for me to recognize that it’s just a fact of life, like having brown hair, and part of who I am.”

Buttigieg told NBC News he "believed that coming out might be a career death sentence."

“It's extraordinary — the changes that we are living through right now — that I was able to come out in the middle of a reelection campaign and win with 80 percent of the vote," he added. “I think it shows that in a place like Indiana, which is deeply conservative, that people really are opening their minds."

Buttigieg's career in politics was jumpstarted back in 2000, when he was an undergraduate student at Harvard College. The teenage Buttigieg won an award for an essay he wrote about then-U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, bemoaning the “cynicism” of politics and calling Sanders an example of “public integrity.” Buttigieg met Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., at the essay award ceremony and was offered an internship by the late lawmaker.

“I have heard that no sensible young person today would want to give his or her life to public service,” Buttigieg wrote in his essay almost two decades ago. “I can personally assure you this is untrue.”