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Mayor Pete and the political outsider

| Tuesday, April 9, 2019

In 2016, one of the most qualified presidential candidates of all time lost to one of the least qualified of all time. Hillary Clinton had been Secretary of State, a senator and First Lady. She probably knew the job better than anyone who hadn’t held the office. But a reality television star who had never been anywhere near politics defeated her. Donald Trump’s background, character and demeanor were all unbecoming of a president. But he won anyway.

Trump spoke to an angry America, one that felt left behind by deindustrialization and a changing economic landscape. It didn’t matter that he was a wealthy New Yorker who knew next to nothing about what it means to be blue collar. What mattered was that he wasn’t from Washington, that he didn’t look or act like any politician anyone had ever seen before. He was the antithesis of the last 40-odd years of American political history. He had zero experience, and that was somehow a good thing.

We’re more than two years into his term, and the 2020 election cycle is in full swing. I can’t believe I’m already writing a column about it, but I guess that’s my fault. The Democratic Party field is already getting crowded — over 20 people have announced their candidacy. There are some very familiar names in the mix, including Joe Biden, Kristen Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. There’s also Pete Buttigieg.

That’s right — South Bend’s very own Mayor Pete launched a presidential exploratory committee in January and is expected to officially announce his candidacy Sunday in downtown South Bend. He was viewed as a long shot. After all, he can hardly be described as a traditional politician. He’s just 37 years old. He’d be our first openly gay president. His experience comes from a four-month tour in Afghanistan and two terms as mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana.

But despite his relative anonymity, and a very difficult-to-pronounce last name, the Buttigieg campaign has done impressively well. He’s raised over $7 million. He, his husband and his dogs seem to dominate the news cycle daily. In the most recent Quinnipiac poll, he stood at 4% — a number that sounds small but places him at the same point as Sen. Warren and ahead of popular names like Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.

Buttigieg and the president are nearly ideological opposites. But, ironically, both of their successes have stemmed from their ability to tap into Americans’ desire for something completely different than what we’re currently used to. Under the Trump administration, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in hatred, in vitriol, in an incendiary brand of politics characterized by mudslinging and partisanship. Absolute refusals to compromise have left Washington in stalemate.

Mayor Pete has stayed far away from all this in South Bend — and he’s been wildly successful here. We’ve all seen our downtown grow increasingly brighter as redevelopment continues. He’s brought unemployment down from 11% to 4%. His administration is built on transparency. He recently announced “the largest investment to parks and trails in the city’s history.” On the campaign trail, his message isn’t angry. It’s hopeful. It believes in the future of the country and doesn’t rely on the past to do so. Buttigieg isn’t only an outsider because of his experience. He’s an outsider because he’s running on confidence and optimism.

It’s early in the election cycle, but Mayor Pete has already proven that hope still works — that an angry rhetoric isn’t the only way to stir voters. He’s in the process of proving that there are many different forms of political experience, and that sometimes the most common ones may not be the best. So far, I’m inclined to agree.

Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college junior and a grumpy old man. A New Jersey native and American studies major, he plans on pursuing a legal career after graduating Notre Dame. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected]


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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