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Who is Pete Buttigieg? And will he become the first openly gay president of the United States?

Who is Pete Buttigieg? And will he become the first openly gay president of the United States?

  • Pete Buttigieg is now the unlikely frontrunner in the race to be the Democratic candidate to take on Donald Trump.
Pete Buttigieg speaking in California in 2019.

If Pete Buttigieg wins the Democratic nomination and beats Donald Trump – he’ll be smashing a lot of records.

But for LGBT+ people around the world, one will stand out. If he wins, Pete Buttigieg will be the first openly gay president of the US. (Note the word ‘openly’. In fact, several former presidents are rumored to have been gay or bi, including Abraham Lincoln and James Buchanan.)

Buttigieg’s possible victory may have seemed ludicrous a year ago.

But he strengthened his position with strong performances in 2019. Polling saw him anywhere from third to fifth among the Democratic nominees. But that was good going in a crowded field of 18 candidates.

The real surprise came in Iowa. After a chaotic few days, votes are still being counted. But based on 71% of the vote Buttigieg is in the lead with 26.8% of the state delegates.

The remaining precincts could alter the result. However, by anyone’s standards, Pete Buttigieg is now a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. And just possibly, by this time next year, he could be in the White House.

Who is Pete Buttigieg?

So who is Pete Buttigieg?

He was born in South Bend, Indiana, the only child of Joseph and Jennifer Anne Buttigieg. And the first challenge for many in getting to know him has been learning to pronounce their family name. It’s of Maltese origin and you pronounce it as buddha-judge.

He graduated as valedictorian from St Joseph High School in South Bend in 2000.

But another success that year must be on his mind right now. He wrote an essay praising the integrity and political courage of Bernie Sanders – now his direct competitor. In any case, it won him first prize in the  John F Kennedy Presidential Library’s Profiles in Courage essay contest.

Further academic success followed – Buttigieg studied at Harvard and Oxford University and was a Rhodes Scholar.

Meanwhile, Buttigieg worked on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign as a policy and research specialist.

After graduation, he was a consultant for McKinsey & Company from 2008 to 2010.

He also signed up to the Navy Reserve in 2009. Later, in 2014 and while mayor of South Bend, he took leave to serve in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer for seven months.

During his deployment, Buttigieg had to identify and disrupt terrorist finance networks. But he also worked as an armed driver for his commander, taking more than 100 trips into Kabul. Buttigieg has joked he was ‘military Uber’.

Buttigieg grew up Catholic and remains a committed Christian. He is now a member of the Episcopal Church.

Mayor of South Bend, Indiana

At the age of 29 in 2010, Buttigieg ran for election as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. It’s a fairly small city, of just 101,000 people. However, his win with 74% of the vote made him the youngest mayor of a US city with at least 100,000 residents.

As mayor, he focused on clearing derelict buildings and investing in housing, roads, parks and infrastructure.

However, he also created controversy, which could come back to bite him this year.

In 2012, it emerged the city’s police chief had been illegally taping officers’ phone calls. Buttigieg asked him to resign – but he was also the city’s first black police chief.

And in 2019, black South Bend residents were also unhappy with his response when a white cop killed an African-American man.

One woman told him: ‘You’re running for president and you want black people to vote for you? That’s not going to happen.’

He left office as South Bend mayor last month but he still lives in the city.

A little over a year ago, on 23 January 2019, Buttigieg indicated he was running for president. And he formally announced in April.

If he wins, he’ll be the youngest president in US history. Theodore Roosevelt was the previous youngest at 42 – back in 1901.

He’s also hoping to become the first mayor to go directly from city hall to the White House.

In fact, Buttigieg has so many firsts, he jokes:

‘I’m definitely the only left-handed Maltese-American-Episcopalian-gay-millennial-war veteran in the race, but I think profile is just what gets you that first look.’

Buttigieg’s struggles with his sexuality and coming out

LGBT+ people marching to support Pete Buttigieg at Boston Pride.
LGBT+ people marching to support Pete Buttigieg at Boston Pride. Whoisjohngalt

Buttigieg didn’t find coming out easy. In fact, as he wrote in his memoirs, he felt being gay in politics was ‘a career death sentence’.

But being deployed with the Navy to Afghanistan in 2014 seems to have been a wake-up call. He said he realized he could die there, having never been in love. And he decided to change that.

So he came out as gay in 2015 – aged 33.

He wrote 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.’

And it didn’t seem to be a political ‘death sentence’ to the people of South Bend. The re-elected him that year with 80% of the vote.

In that same year, he started dating Chasten Glezman, a schoolteacher from Michigan. The pair announced their engagement in 2017 and married in 2018.

Since then, Chasten Buttigieg has since become a prolific fund-raiser in his own right. He has also made speeches for his husband at events across the country.

‘Mayor Pete’ – as people affectionately called him – later said his teen self may not have believed that was possible.

‘To tell him that on that day he announces his campaign for president, he’ll do it with his husband looking on,’ he said. ‘Would he believe me?’

Can a gay man win the White House?

While proudly out, to this day, Buttigieg is keen for people to see his life achievements, not just his sexuality.

But he may get to test one of the great unknowns of US politics. Will the public vote for a gay president?

In October 2019, a poll indicated only half Americans say they are ready for a gay president.

And, there were farcical scenes this week when one homophobic woman who had already voted for him in the Iowa caucus belatedly learned he is gay.

However, polls aren’t everything. Firstly Hillary Clinton – has proven a woman can win the popular vote (albeit not the presidency). Moreover, John F Kennedy proved critics wrong, who thought no Catholic could ever get into the White House.

Right now the analysis suggests that Pete Buttigieg has the best LGBT+ platform of any presidential candidate in US history.

However, despite this, Bernie Sanders, has the most LGBT+ support. This may be because he is the most left-wing candidate.

And, realistically, none of the Democrat candidates will be likely to overly worry LGBT+ voters. For many, the 3 November 2020 election is about ‘anybody but Trump’.

What does he stand for?

Buttigieg’s overall message in the campaign has been to promise ‘Generational change’.

He supports the right to abortion, ending the death penalty and the ‘safe, regulated, and legal sale of marijuana’. Moreover, he wants to see universal background checks on people buying guns.

To tackle racial inequality, he plans to give billions to African-American colleges and entrepreneurs. He would also wipe drug conviction records, halve the federal prison population, and increase voting access.

Meanwhile, he has a three-pilar plan to tackle climate change. He would encourage clean energy jobs and invest in disaster relief and prevention. He wants the US to be a leader on climate change worldwide and would sign up to the Paris agreement ditched by Trump.

On constitutional issues, he wants to abolish the United States Electoral College. And he would increase the number of seats on the US Supreme Court to 15. He would also change the system by which Supreme Court Justices are chosen, to make it less of a ‘political death match’.

He also proposes a public health insurance option and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

And he wants to update the Federal Equality Act so federal non-discrimination protections cover LGBT+ Americans. Finally he would overturn Trump’s  ban on transgender people in the military.

Pete Buttigieg announcing he's running for president in April 2019.
Pete Buttigieg announcing he’s running for president in April 2019. Gary Riggs

Iowa success and what happens next

Buttigieg said on Tuesday: ‘In order to govern, in order to lead, in order to move this country forward, we need a president focused on the future and ready to leave the politics of the past in the past.’

So could Buttigieg be the fresh, confident campaign needed to win the presidency?

Analysts point out that Buttigieg’s campaign invested heavily in winning Iowa. And while he is in the lead, Bernie Sanders actually secured the popular vote with Warren and Buttigieg trailing slightly behind.

However, as is often the case in the US, the popular vote isn’t the same as the number of delegates. So right now, Buttigieg has 26.8%, Bernie Sanders is narrowly behind him with 25.2%. Meanwhile Elizabeth Warren has 18.4% and Joe Biden: has 15.5%.

Meanwhile Michael Bloomberg, another serious contender, came late to the race – so is still to get going.

Can Buttigieg actually win?

For Buttigieg, his success in Iowa may be the height of his political career. Or it may just be the moment he starts a nine-month marathon that will end in the White House.

His strengths and weaknesses are often the same – depending on your view.

For example, he’s a moderate voice with strong intellectual appeal. However, this may be his downfall, if the left of the Democratic party goes for Sanders and the centrist vote is split between Buttigieg, Biden and Bloomberg.

Likewise, critics tend to dismiss him as a management consultant for McKinsey who hangs out in the ‘wine caves’ of the super-rich. But then, they have money and he’s a formidable fundraiser.

Perhaps his best hope is a particularly strong performance in the New Hampshire primary next week. That may give him some real momentum before he reaches the more diverse and challenging states of South Carolina, California and Texas.

But Buttigieg has certainly proven those who wrote him off wrong.

He’s been an overachiever all his life. And, in less than four years, he’s gone from being single and closeted to being the married gay candidate for president. Anything is possible.