The Gist

The Mayor Who Wants to Be President

Pete Buttigieg is a long shot. But so was Donald Trump.

Pete Buttigieg smiling.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a meet-and-greet at Madhouse Coffee on April 8 in Las Vegas.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

In a recent episode of The Gist, Mike Pesca spoke with Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg about why he’s running, his thoughts on policy issues ranging from the size of the Supreme Court to whether we should get rid of the penny, and coming out in 2015. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mike Pesca: Why is it that mayors don’t often vie for the presidency? It seems like mayor is a pretty good job in terms of being an executive and getting things done. Why have they been ignored in U.S. history?

Pete Buttigieg: I think the tradition and the convention has said that you’ve got to have a lot of Washington experience, and we seem to, for the most part, prefer people who’ve been marinated in the U.S. Congress and the Washington environment. But I think that was before we had reached the current level of paralysis in Washington.

And now I’m starting to think that the less time you have to do with the U.S. Congress, the better, in some respects, politically. That’s not to disparage the work that goes on there, but when cities are arguably the most functional level of U.S. democracy that we have left, it’s time for another look at that local level and ask whether we wouldn’t be better off making sure Washington starts looking more like the best-run cities and towns in the U.S. instead of the other way around.

What’s the municipal workforce of South Bend?

Just over 1,000 people. It’s about a $300 million a year operation. That’s everything from folks who pick up the trash to police officers, firefighters, and the people who fill in the holes in the road.

Why do you think that experience will scale to the vast bureaucracy of the presidency?

The reality is that nobody walks into the Oval Office knowing what it’s like to be president of the United States, except maybe Grover Cleveland, when he came back for his second round. I understand that it’s audacious for somebody in my position, but I would argue that it’s audacious for somebody in any position to think that they can comfortably occupy it. And yet, what we do every four years or eight years is we send somebody into that office based on whatever experience they have.

The experience I have is guiding a city through a transformation, and I think somebody who’s been a mayor of a city of any size—getting the phone call on everything from an economic development deal to a racially sensitive officer-involved shooting—is highly relevant to a job that, in my view, basically has three parts. One, implement policy. Two, capably run an organization. And three, bring people together and call them to their highest values.

The reality in terms of management is that you can be a very senior U.S. senator and have never in your life managed more than 100 people. I get that a city workforce in any city is not the same as the federal workforce, but I also think that that kind of executive on-the-ground experience is highly relevant. And funny as it sounds for the 37-year-old in the race, I’ve got more years of government experience than the president, but also more years of government executive experience than the vice president. And I have more military experience in wartime under my belt than anybody to walk into the Oval Office since George H.W. Bush. So, as cheeky as it sounds for somebody my age, experience is a big part of why I think I belong in this conversation.

Can you give me an example of a mayoral triumph that was based mainly on delegation, and not you, personally, rolling your sleeves up, but still getting a great result?

The reality is, as a mayor, most of the time you’re conducting. Other people are playing the instruments. And so bringing people together is the most important part of the role. And that’s true whether I find out about a racially sensitive police situation, and I’ve got to go on television in a matter of hours and make sure that the community is reassured when it’s at risk, in our very diverse community, of being torn into pieces.

It’s true in a situation like how we tackled vacant and abandoned properties. Where we had to bring together the private sector and the public sector and empower people from every different corner of our community, from low-income residents in neighborhoods that had experienced blight and neglect to people who could bring together the financial resources to get something done.

One minute I try to do my job by literally sitting down with a constituent and trying to understand what their issue is. Another minute I know that the only tool I have to reach as many people as I need to in the time is through a television camera.

Studebaker was the biggest employer in South Bend for a number of years. You are honest with your constituents, telling them that Studebaker is not coming back. Would that be a harder sell if it wasn’t a defunct company? Like if it were Ford or Carrier?

We can’t keep telling people that greatness is going to come out of our past. I do think that there was an advantage in South Bend that somebody from my generation had not seen the factories in their heyday. I only knew them as kind of empty hulks. I saw the shards of that industrial ruin around me and thought about how we could have a better city. And from that, I tried to persuade a lot of people, many of whom were old enough that they did remember Studebaker up and running, to help them understand why the future wasn’t going to look like the past.

But I think that’s the same kind of national conversation that we’ve got to have. I think that people in industrial communities experiencing this disruption have been insulted from the right and from the left. I think that the Trumpian formula, that they have to look backward in order to get anywhere, is insulting. But to be honest, some of the vocabulary that comes from my side of the aisle, especially when it comes to things like retraining—don’t get me wrong, we do retraining too, it’s important. But when we tell people “You’re broke, and we’re going to fix you with this retraining program, then you’re going to be all better” is not exactly meeting people where they are, and it’s not convincing them that they can thrive in a globalizing, automating economy.

You wrote that op-ed in the local paper coming out as gay in 2015. And you write that you were well into adulthood before you were prepared to acknowledge the simple fact that you are gay. Which was harder: admitting it to yourself or the public?

Both of those were challenging. I did not want to be gay. Especially because, by the time I was wrangling with that, there were really two elements to my professional life. One was being involved in politics and looking at holding political office in Indiana, and the other was serving in the military, which did not allow you to be openly gay and serve at the time that I joined.

I didn’t exactly make it easy on myself. But I think that if it weren’t for the deployment, I might have kept dragging my feet forever on coming out, except that I realized I wasn’t getting any younger. I was a grown man in charge of a city, owning a house, and had no idea what it was like to be in love. It was just a humiliating and confusing place to be.

So I put an end to it, not knowing what the politics would be like. Mike Pence was governor of the state at the time. I happened to be in a reelection race, but I just knew it was time. And in the end, the community was fine. They embraced it. They supported me. There was a little bit of nastiness out there, but most people either let me know that they support me or they went the other way and let me know they didn’t care. They just wanted the potholes filled. Either one of those responses was, in its own way, pretty uplifting to me.

You also talk about this phenomenon where people almost were grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate how OK with it they were.

Yeah. This is really important for us to think about as change is made, because we also need to make sure people feel good about themselves as they are dealing with a dizzying pace of change. I write about some people I knew, older people, maybe a little more conservative. One always sticks out in my mind—she came up to me with a mischievous smile and said, “I met your friend, and he’s wonderful.” Now, I could have lectured her on the difference between a friend and a partner, but that was her way of saying she was headed our way, and at a moment when we had been so divided, especially during the Pence administration, there was some risk of people on my side of the debate pointing fingers at people who just weren’t quite comfortable with acceptance yet and almost pushing them into the arms of the religious right.

It was really important to beckon and welcome people onto the right side of history in a way that helped them feel good about themselves, even if they were still kind of gradually coming to terms with that. And I think that might have some lessons about some of the other issues where people my age and younger are very, very impatient to see change, but we’ve got to remember some of the places that the people on the other side are coming from. Especially if we ever want to win them over.

I want to talk about a couple policy issues. Do you think increasing the number of Supreme Court justices is a good policy to pursue?

I definitely think it deserves to be debated. We’ve got to be looking at more deep questions than just nibbling around the edges of the system. Because the court is on a pathway toward being viewed as nakedly political, and if we allow that to continue, we’re going to lose one of the most important institutions in our society. It might even be worse than the extent to which the presidency and its value has been diminished or lost in the last two years. So we’ve got to consider some structural alternatives that preserve the integrity of the court.

We’ve also got to consider revisiting the Electoral College that twice in my lifetime has overruled the American people and pretty much means, as an Indiana voter, that in most elections my vote for president doesn’t even matter. And we’ve got to look at other questions around the role of Citizens United in money and politics if we really want to call ourselves a democracy.

What are the second- and third-order effects of adding seats to the Supreme Court?

There are a lot of different institutional designs we could come up with, whether it’s just a simple addition to the number, which is something that could just keep spiraling, or something a little more fine-tuned. I saw one proposal where you have 15 members of the court. Five of them are Democrats, five of them are Republicans, then the other five are selected by the remaining 10, but subject to the rule that all 10 of them have to agree to that person. The idea would be to make sure that the balance of the court is never decided by one party or the other party, but by some plurality of people who think for themselves.

Again, I don’t know that any one of these solutions is the right one, but I think the time has come for us to ask about those structural questions. Especially because that, unlike the Electoral College reform or some of the other things we’ve talked about, according to some theories could be done without any changes to the Constitution.

Do you have an inclination of what the highest tax rate should be before it becomes self-defeating or confiscatory?

I’ve got more math to do before I put forward a set of numbers. Measure twice, cut once. And I’m also trying to make sure that I’m engaging in a debate about values and ideas, the way the right did pretty effectively, before we do policy. Because the Democratic Party has, to its detriment, plunged right into the policy before trying to win the battle of ideas. But look, I think the highest marginal tax rates for income taxes probably do need to be adjusted, if only because they got slashed without regard to what it would do to the deficit. And there’s no question that that’s contributed to inequality in our country.

Would you be in favor of arming Ukrainians?

I have definitely not come out for arming anybody in that conflict. I do think that we need to revisit the regional security framework for that part of the world, especially if Russia is withdrawing from the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty]. But we need to make sure that anything we do with regard to our alliances that touch the former Soviet bloc are designed to get us to a more stable situation there, because it could be headed in the wrong direction.

Do you think pennies should continue to be minted?

Oh, wow, definitely never got that one before. I’m not ready to make news here that I’m anti-penny, if only out of regard for Mr. Lincoln. I don’t know what’s more inefficient now, a one-dollar bill or a penny? It might be the one-dollar bill. I don’t know why the dollar coins never caught on. I’m going to give that some thought.

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