SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, officially announced his presidential bid Sunday afternoon, hoping to make history as the youngest-ever, and the first-ever openly gay, commander in chief.
Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd inside a downtown tech hub that had once been the home of a long-ago-shuttered Studebaker car factory, Buttigieg promised to bring to the country the kind of change and innovation he’d helped to instill in his native South Bend.
"My name is Pete Buttigieg. They call me Mayor Pete. I am a proud son of South Bend, Indiana. And I am running for President of the United States," he said, prompting a wave of adoring screams from the crowd. "I recognize the audacity of doing this as a Midwestern millennial mayor. More than a little bold — at age 37— to seek the highest office in the land."
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Touting the advances his native city made under his leadership — including a revitalized downtown and slashed unemployment — Buttigieg proclaimed that "South Bend is back."
And he got in more than a few digs at President Donald Trump, telling the crowd that he was going to "tell a different story than 'Make America Great Again.'"
"There is a myth being sold to industrial and rural communities: the myth that we can stop the clock and turn it back," he said. "It comes from people who think the only way to reach communities like ours is through resentment and nostalgia, selling an impossible promise of returning to a bygone era that was never as great as advertised to begin with."
“The horror show in Washington is mesmerizing, all-consuming," he added. "But starting today, we are going to change the channel. Sometimes a dark moment brings out the best in us, what is good in us, dare I say, what is great in us.”
Buttigieg unveiled the three-pronged campaign message that he’s been sharing in bars and living rooms in recent weeks in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina: Security (“the idea that security and patriotism belong to one political party needs to end now”) and democracy (“no issue we care about, from gun safety to immigration, from climate to education to paid family leave, will be handled well unless our democracy is in better shape.”)
“Our conservative friends care about freedom, but only make it part of the journey," he said. "They only see ‘freedom from,' freedom from taxes, freedom from regulation … as though government were the only thing that can make you unfree.
“But that’s not true. Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. There’s a lot more to your freedom than the size of your government.”
Touching on the message that helped catapult the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, to office, Buttigieg mentioned the word “change” at least 10 times, according to his prepared remarks, announcing at one point that “change is coming, ready or not.”
“The question of our time is whether families and workers will be defeated by the changes beneath us or whether we will master them and make them work toward a better everyday life for us all,” he said.
The highly anticipated announcement marked the latest chapter in Buttigieg’s meteoric rise from the mayor of the fourth-most-populous city in the nation’s 17th-most-populated state to a legitimate presidential contender.
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Buttigieg had previously launched a presidential exploratory committee in January, leading to a barrage of television interviews and newspaper articles highlighting his diverse résumé. Buttigieg, the son of two Notre Dame University professors, attended Harvard; went on to become a Rhodes Scholar; did a stint at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.; was elected as the mayor of South Bend at the age of 29; took a leave of absence during his first term to serve in Afghanistan as a naval intelligence officer; came out as gay in a column in his local newspaper a few months before his re-election; was re-elected with nearly 80 percent of the vote; married his partner Chasten in a church ceremony that was live-streamed on the Internet; and wrote a best-selling book.
On Sunday, Buttigieg made frequent mention of each of these parts of his résumé, but spent particular time addressing his military service and his coming out in a bluntly personal way — and at times melded stories from each part of his life together in compelling yarns that prompted loud applause.
“The men and women who got in my vehicle, they didn’t care if I was a Democrat or a Republican,” Buttigieg said about his time in Afghanistan as a Navy intelligence officer.
“They cared about whether I had selected the route with the fewest IED threats, not whether my father was documented or undocumented when he immigrated here," he said. "They cared about whether my M-4 was locked and loaded, not whether I was going home to a girlfriend or a boyfriend.”
Buttigieg spent the months after his exploratory committee launch crisscrossing the country, introducing himself to crowds in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, delivering a highly personal speech about how he wrestled with his sexual orientation, and taking shots at Vice President Mike Pence over his stances on gay marriage and LGBTQ equality.
He joins an exceptionally crowded field of candidates vying for his party's nomination. There are at least 14 major candidates in the race — 17 if you count three other semi-well known contenders — and almost half a dozen others who could still announce.
Democratic voters and politics watchers, however, have quickly taken notice of the millennial mayor, expressing admiration over his ability to speak seven languages, praising his intellectual ideas like “intergenerational justice,” and embracing a handful of ambitious policy proposals, like abolishing the electoral college.
Inside Studebaker Building 84 — which used to be a Studebaker car factory that closed in the 1960s but was repurposed as a tech and data hub by Buttigieg — several thousand supporters (some who traveled as far as California) gobbled up every word uttered by the former Rhodes scholar, frequently breaking out into raucous screams.
Hundreds of supporters were turned away from the event after it reached capacity, and chose instead to watch the event on a projection screen outside the building in freezing cold rain.
Before he delivered his speech, Buttigieg addressed the overflow crowd outside, telling them that “standing in the rain helping someone run for office is an act of hope.”
One of the attendees on Sunday, 57-year-old Terry Burns of Indianapolis, said Buttigieg “doesn’t seem like a typical politician, seems honest and thoughtful, would make a good level-headed president.”
His wife Lisa Burns, 61, said she thought it “would be nice to have some one smart in the White House for a change," adding, "I’ve already decided to support him and nothing can change that.”
The money has been coming in, too.
Earlier this month, Buttigieg announced that he’d raised more than $7 million since launching his exploratory committee — a whopping amount for an until-now-relative unknown figure and one that has put him ahead of everyone in the Democratic race in terms of total money raised, except Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Texas Rep Beto O’Rourke and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
Last week, a pair of polls put Buttigieg in third place in Iowa (a Monmouth University poll had him getting the support of 9 percent of likely caucus-goers, behind 16 percent for Sanders and 27 percent for former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to join the race later this month) and in New Hampshire (a Saint Anselm College poll showed him 11 percent, trailing Sanders, who got 16 percent, and Biden, who got 23 percent).
The speed of Buttigieg's ascent isn’t lost on the newly minted candidate.
“A month ago,” he joked during an appearance last week on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” "we were just trying to get people to say my name.”