On the Tuesday when I am to meet Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend Tribune, his hometown paper, runs a headline with staggering news: An Emerson poll of likely Iowa Caucus voters has put the mayor third among Democratic prospects, ahead of everybody except the grizzled veterans of the race, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. The surge is just the latest in a series of ascents that began when Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of a small Rust Belt city, announced his exploratory committee for the presidency in January. Since then, his unlikely climb has energized a scattered race, and has come as a shock to no one more than to the candidate himself. “All these events that we set up as, basically, meet-and-greet events end up being rallies,” he tells me when I arrive at the riverside white colonnaded house he owns with his husband, Chasten. “So I’m learning how to adapt my style.”
In person, Buttigieg’s style is amiable and controlled. He speaks, like a newscaster, in lucid paragraphs, with a solid baritone and boxed-in decorum. He seems to live in white shirts and pressed slacks—it’s his dress even now, around the house—and wears his hair in the same tame coif as Mike Pence, who was elected Indiana’s governor the year he was sworn in as mayor. Showing me into a living room where books on display range from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to Peanuts: A Golden Celebration, he takes a seat in front of a huge resource-and-mineral map of Afghanistan. A burl-wood chessboard sits beside a folded-over copy of The New Yorker; most other surfaces, including the dining-room table in the other room, are piled with work papers and the castoffs of a busy life. The home is one of the nicest in the city and serves as a reminder of South Bend’s distance from the coasts: The mortgage payment, according to Buttigieg, is about $450 a month.
Since being elected in 2011, at 29, the mayor has focused his attentions on renewing a city that has not regained its footing since the Studebaker company, which once drove the local economy, shuttered in the sixties. He has distinguished himself by refusing to look backward, instead clearing abandoned properties and promoting downtown development, tech, and public art—often under scrutiny and worry that his policies were not benefiting all residents equally. To those who question his age and experience (the mayorship is the only public office he has ever won), Buttigieg likes to point out that he has been a government executive longer than President Trump. He defaults toward a wonky interiority (he’s at his most animated talking about policy reform) and lives with a longtime wunderkind’s self-minimizing streak: a habit of demurely absorbing admiration as a matter of course. His air is one of quiet, recessive confidence. “I’m actually more comfortable in front of a large crowd than in front of a medium-size crowd,” he tells me. “I’m not sure why—it’s an instinct.”
Happily, large crowds have come to be the norm. On April 14, Buttigieg formally announced his candidacy before thousands assembled in a vaulted former Studebaker factory being pelted by spring rain. “I ran for mayor in 2011 knowing that nothing like Studebaker would ever come back, but that we would, our city would, if we had the courage to reimagine our future,” the mayor said. “That’s why I’m here today: to tell a different story than ‘Make America Great Again.’ ” Earlier that week, on Ellen, Buttigieg had sharpened his language against the LGBTQ stances of Pence, whom he had previously called “cheerleader of the porn-star presidency.” (“I’m not feuding with the vice president, but if he wanted to clear this up, he could come out today and say he’s changed his mind, that it shouldn’t be legal to discriminate against anybody in this country for who they are,” the mayor told DeGeneres.) Of President Trump he has said, “It is hard to look at this president’s actions and believe that they are the actions of somebody who believes in God.” Swarmed with political reporters at his rally, Buttigieg elaborated his themes. “It is time to walk away from the politics of the past, and toward something totally different,” he said. “I’m here to join you to make a little news,” he continued as a chant rose (“Pete! Pete! Pete!”). “I’m a proud son of South Bend, Indiana, and I am running for president of the United States.”
The explosive cheers that followed affirmed the mayor’s arrival as the unicorn in this year’s Democratic field. There’s the improbability of his youth, the smallness of his demesne (South Bend’s population is about 100,000), and the difficulty of his name, which is easiest to say if you have never seen it spelled. (It’s Boot-e-jedge—his father was an immigrant from Malta—but many South Bend residents simply call him “Mayor Pete.”) There’s also a thread of paradox running through his life. Buttigieg is the Everyman-seeming child of a forgotten Indiana town who moved through Harvard, a Rhodes Scholarship, Beltway jobs, and other less-than-totally-relatable pursuits. (It was recently revealed that he had learned Norwegian for the purpose of reading untranslated satiric novels by Erlend Loe; The Onion parodied his arcane overachiever’s knowledge by quoting him “speaking to manufacturing robots in fluent binary. ‘01001001.’ ”) He is a change-oriented blue candidate who, while mayor, underwent a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan in the Navy Reserve. If elected president, he would be both the first Midwestern Christian Democrat since Harry Truman and the first openly gay person in the role; Chasten (pronounced phonetically: Chast-en) would be the nation’s first First Man. Most paradoxically, Buttigieg seems to stir keenest excitement among the tapped-in coastal latte set. In March, The New York Times anointed him with an unusually piquant headline: “New York Buzzes Over a Mayor Mulling a 2020 Bid (Buttigieg, Not de Blasio).” None of this has ever quite happened before.
Buttigieg’s supporters hope that this wave will propel him from a small-city role to the White House: After the election of Trump, they argue, anything is possible. Yet the longtime political analyst Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report, tells me he’d ascribe any advantage Buttigieg has to a longer, pre-Trump arc of change. “Think about the last Democrats elected president,” he says. “Jimmy Carter was a one-term senator and a one-term governor, and nobody had heard of him. Bill Clinton was a small-state governor. Obama announced for president on February 10, 2007, two years and seven days after he became a senator. He just barely got here.” For the past few decades, in other words, all successful Democrats have had the air of arresting outsiders; the question, Cook says, is less whether But-tigieg qualifies by this measure than whether he has the depth and presence to hold his place onstage when the spotlight passes to other novelties, as it inevitably will. “People don’t like traditional politicians,” he says. “People with nontraditional presidential backgrounds—that’s become a real asset. Also to have no, or very little, congressional voting record to defend.”
In a fractious political moment, pundits have sought to pin down Buttigieg’s position in the increasingly internecine, left-of-center spread—an exercise at which he bristles. “People are always trying to situate you on this line,” he complains. “The ideological setup feels like it’s from another age, a period when we would navigate all politics based on choosing a spot, or a score, on the left-right spectrum.” Instead, he sees the political chaos of the moment as an opportunity for structural reform. Take the Electoral College, which he thinks should be abolished; or statehood for Washington, D.C., which he supports; or the Supreme Court nomination process, which he wants to reform: These are institutional repairs that citizens of all stripes can get behind, he thinks, and their effects would be far-reaching. He also believes policy challenges such as the climate, drug-policy reform, gun control, and immigration aren’t nearly as divisive as the pundit class suggests. “The dark miracle of this administration is that it’s taken immigration—a subject on which basically there’s a consensus on the part of people about what to do—and turned it into a wedge,” he says. But-tigieg describes his own policy vision as a “grand bargain that includes pathways to citizenship, reforms for the lawful-immigration system, something to do for Dreamers, and some kind of border-security package.” Such reforms make Buttigieg sound more consensus-oriented than liberal firebrands such as AlexandriaOcasio-Cortez, but, not unlike them, he seeks to challenge what he thinks has been Washington’s rightward drift. “There’s this set of assumptions, especially around economics, that has been accepted and shared really across parties,” he says. “The argument was basically over whether we should cut taxes more for the middle class or more for the wealthiest. The idea that the wealthy were paying too little was not something the Democrats were willing to raise most of the time.” To try to recenter norms, Buttigieg has organized his speeches around basic concepts, such as “freedom” and “democracy,” that he thinks the right has co-opted as its own. “I think we should be willing to defend or question policies based mainly on what they do for us in the everyday,” he says. For instance, when the mayor speaks about climate change, he talks about two major floods that South Bend faced in a space of two years—making it, as he puts it, “a security issue.” He announced himself as a supporter of the Green New Deal.
That two-pronged approach to politics—foundational and unifying on the high level, flexible and solutions-minded on the ground—is sharply personal for Buttigieg. It was only four years ago when, as mayor, he nervously came out to his parents as gay at the dinner table. A few months later, he came out to his constituents, in an eloquent op-ed in the South Bend Tribune. “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,” he wrote. The obvious question followed, both in public and at home. Was there—as his mother eagerly put it—“someone”? Sadly, no: Buttigieg says he had never once been in love until, in his early 30s, he met Chasten. They found each other via Hinge, a dating app, which Buttigieg had filtered for nearby Chicago (his solution to the awkwardness of trying to date people in a city of which you are mayor). They married last summer, at a South Bend church, through a ceremony in which he found both private and public import. “As somebody whose marriage—the single most important thing in my life—exists as the consequence of a single-vote margin on the Supreme Court, I can’t ever forget what’s at stake in politics,” he tells me.
After a while, Chasten wanders in and takes a seat near his husband. He is younger and blonder and, by his own description, “whimsical” in all the ways the mayor is contained. He has worked in theater education and now teaches at a South Bend Montessori school, though he is on leave for the campaign. They balance each other. “There was a long period when my job was my life,” the mayor says. “Chasten respects the political process, but he’s also put down a lot of boundaries.” For instance: a weekly “enforceable” date night. Also: dogs. As Chasten takes a seat, the But-tigiegs’ two rescues rush around him.
“They have kind of a Yin and Yang thing going on,” the mayor says of the animals. “Buddy”—a stout beagle mix—“is the more social one. He’s very food-oriented. He’s been on a weight-loss journey. Truman”—a waifish mix of similar size—“was absolutely terrified of everything when we got him. I think he’d been very badly abused. Chasten got him stoned today on anti-anxiety meds because he’s got to get his nails clipped.”
Truman, as if on cue, begins to wander toward the piano, offering a dazed and abashed glance over one shoulder before shying farther away.
The mayor looks back toward the gregarious Buddy. “And Buddy got into the food bin last night.”
“The problem with beagles is they can eat themselves to death,” Chasten says.
“It was a very gassy night,” the mayor observes.
Chasten says that his political opinions have traditionally been reactive and impassioned, but that the mayor has inspired him to take more reasoned views. He points to a disagreement that they had about the fate of a public park, with a golf course, that the mayor decided to sell off. “I’m a fan of green space and parks!” says Chasten, who was horrified. Slowly, the mayor brought him around. “He thought that if the city could get this out of its hands, and off the books, we could put the money toward other resources,” he explains. “It’s very rare to have an easy conversation in which Peter won’t ask you to think about things differently.” He smiles. “It’s sort of like always being in grad school.”
The mayor has often said that they hope to have children but is vague on when, exactly, this would happen: For now, the business of politics has shaped and constrained their shared life. Chasten has become an eloquent and popular voice on social media for gay Americans in the heartland. Though he’s ambivalent about such digital platforms (“We have a don’t-read-the-comments-section household”), he is, as his husband likes to put it, “alive to” the importance of being a visible Midwestern couple. “We’re out to embrace it and not run away from it,” Buttigieg says, more circumspectly, “but also not let it become the main thing.” He sees himself as a bridge between the LGBTQ community and the Christian community, two groups that—in places like South Bend, at least—haven’t always mixed.
“There are a lot of people here who would like to find their way to the right side of history but don’t really know what’s expected of them,” the mayor says. “We have a marriage that’s kind of like every other marriage, and we’ve got our dogs and our home. That is, if anything, a way to relate to other mostly straight people that maybe wasn’t available to me a few years ago. We’re conscious, of course, of what it means: You can see it in some of the people who come to our events, either for an LGBT kid who’s trying to figure out where to fit in or a lot of older gay people who just never could have imagined that it would be possible to run, let alone to have a shot. But it’s not something, I think, that defines either of us.”
He raises his eyebrows. “I mean, in some ways, being married to Chasten is the most normal thing in my life—the only normal thing,” he says.
The mayor has to drive to some businesses downtown and suggests that we take a tour around South Bend. We get into his car, a Chevrolet sedan in a particularly subdued shade of gray. He drives at a controlled pace—partly, it seems, from caution (the mayor is an exceedingly defensive driver) but partly out of pride. “College Street, where I lived as a little kid, is up there,” he says, as we pass a stretch of tidy one-floor houses with small lawns. As a child, Buttigieg had dreamed of being an astronaut, but by high school his attentions turned. For a national essay contest (which he won), he composed an admiring portrait of an independent Vermont senator who, though speaking from the left, reached out to work across the aisle: Bernie Sanders. Buttigieg won his first election, as class president, that same year.
When exactly he decided, in his own mind, he would seek the U.S. presidency is less clear. He announced his exploratory committee in January. In February, his elegantly written memoir, Shortest Way Home, appeared, introducing him to the nation (“a chance for me to tell my story before someone else does,” as he tells me), and soon began climbing The New York Times best-seller list. Books taking what they do in the way of time, this project of national self-presentation was clearly in the works more than two years ago. Did he have White House plans then? I keep asking him the question, in various phrasings, but he never replies head-on. Eventually it occurs to me that this is probably an answer in itself.
Buttigieg’s memoir takes its title from a line in Chapter 13 of Ulysses, by James Joyce: “Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” (In a February tweet, the mayor touted the novel as “a very democratic book, about a guy going through life and the incredible depth and meaning to be found in the everyday”—a description that, impressively, manages to oversell and undersell it at the same time.) His father, who died in January, was a popular English professor at Notre Dame who wrote on Joyce’s aesthetics, though he was best known as a scholar of the influential Italian neo-Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. His mother, also on the English faculty, taught at Notre Dame for nearly 30 years. In his memoir, he writes of his fascination with discussions between his parents and their brainy friends. “I would hear but not understand arguments over the uselessness of post-structuralism or the relevance of Hobsbawm’s historiography,” he writes. “The more I heard these aging professors talk, the more I wanted to learn how to decrypt their sentences and to grasp the political backstory of the grave concerns that commanded their attention and aroused such fist-pounding dinner debate.”
Eventually, he went to Harvard. He majored in history and literature, but spent much of his extracurricular energies working toward becoming student president of the Institute of Politics, which hosts visiting politicians, Beltway journalists, and other dignitaries up from Washington, D.C. “I was definitely interested in politics, and maybe even in pursuing it, but I wouldn’t have imagined that politics, for me, would wind up being local,” he tells me as we cruise past the tiny South Bend airport. “I would not have guessed that I’d repeatedly pass up invitations to run for Congress while mayor. At the time, I would have viewed Congress as a higher office.” He adds, pointedly, “I no longer think that’s necessarily the case.”
After graduating, he spent a year working on political campaigns, in Phoenix and the nation’s capital, while applying for a Rhodes Scholarship. He used it to enroll at Pembroke College, Oxford, and its program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, the traditional starting gate for high-flying British politicians. After, he joined McKinsey & Company, found the grind unfulfilling, worked for the Obama campaign as a canvasser (he had previously turned down a job on Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign in order to do work for John Kerry’s presidential run), and joined the Navy Reserve—inspired, he claims, by a painting of his great-uncle in uniform. In 2010, he ran for Indiana state treasurer and lost. The following year, he ran for South Bend mayor and won.
One of Buttigieg’s strengths as a candidate is that he is seen as being able to speak to putative Trump voters: the struggling heartland working class that wants change from a remote-seeming government. “I think, clearly, Democrats are concerned, and focused on, How do you reclaim Pennsylvania? How do you reclaim Michigan and Wisconsin?” Cook says. “Somebody who can win an election in Indiana—well, maybe that conveys over.” A concern, though, is whether he can mobilize women and voters of color. But-tigieg has been haunted by a decision he made, during his first year as mayor, to fire the South Bend police chief, who was under F.B.I. investigation but who was also the first African American in the role. As we pass the remains of the Studebaker factories, I ask him what he’d say to those who argue that yet another white male candidate isn’t what Democrats need in this year of all years. “I’m sensitive to that,” he says, stiffening at the wheel. “In the end, I think we just bring whatever identity we have to the table. Mine is of a young, gay, first-generation white veteran mayor.” He holds that his policies can be broadly empowering. Buttigieg has been a vocal opponent of gerrymandering, voter-I.D. laws, and other ballot-box practices thought to help President Trump’s odds. “If you stand to be at a disadvantage when more people vote, then the problem isn’t with the voters,” he has said.
And he is not without advantages of his own. Despite being a small-city mayor, Buttigieg had an elite path out of South Bend that left him well-connected, and he enjoyed warmth from the last Democratic White House long before throwing his hat into the presidential ring: In a late-2016 New Yorker interview, President Obama dropped his name, seemingly out of the blue, as a rising star—Buttigieg ran for D.N.C. chair the following year—and former White House adviser David Axelrod enthusiastically blurbed his memoir. When I ask Buttigieg how he sees his position as being continuous and discontinuous with the last Democratic president, the mayor talks admiringly about President Obama’s scrupulous, analytical nature. “He ran a White House that I would describe as extremely disciplined,” Buttigieg says. “He was not afraid to be intellectual and also was very wise, I would say, in the way he handled the historic nature of his presidency. I think the biggest differences come not from individual difference”—he pauses—“and more from differences in our moment.” The Obama administration, he argues, did the best it could while facing a highly obstructionist Senate and House. With the House majority now Democratic and the country’s mood changing, he contends, there’s room to push big ideas through.
“The next Democratic president, no matter what their disposition, is just going to be operating on very different territory than Obama could, with a lot more potential,” he says, in the dreamiest tone I’ve heard from him yet. “The next presidency could, I’d say, define an era in no smaller way than either FDR or Reagan.”
We have reached West Washington Street, and Buttigieg glides his Chevrolet into a parking spot opposite the building where his campaign keeps its local office. The tour is over, and the mayor looks pleased. As he leaves the car, another vehicle zooms past, and a young woman calls cheerily out the window, “Hey, Mayor Pete!” The mayor—now a candidate for president—whirls around and tries to answer her before she goes.