When weighed against a US congressman and the current US Secretary of Labor, the mayor of Indiana's fourth-largest city might seem an unlikely candidate for the Democratic National Committee chair. But following a stinging electoral defeat for the Democrats, some political observers are anticipating a shake-up of the party's governing body.
Pete Buttigieg, who serves as mayor of South Bend, Ind., announced his candidacy for DNC chair Thursday, garnering support from mayors, state senators, and his own state’s DNC chair.
As the Democrats look to regroup following the upset victory of President-elect Donald Trump over favored Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, debates as to how the party can move forward as a progressive unit that can still appeal to rural voters have dominated the conversation, with many looking to the vacant DNC chair seat as a way to send a message about the party’s direction. Some favor candidates who fit the status quo of President Obama’s legacy, such as Labor Secretary Tom Perez, while others are clamoring for change and calling for an outsider's approach, such as that of Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to congressional office, who has chaired the party’s progressive caucus.
Mr. Buttigieg, who hails from the Rust Belt and boasts Ivy League and military credentials, could leverage both his reputation as a social progressive and his eclectic background to find favor among those who want to see the “swamp” of career politicians cast out of Washington, D.C.
"I don't think that there's any silver bullet to the party's issues, but I do think there's an opportunity, especially with a perspective that comes from state or local government, and from a part of the country where Democrats absolutely should be winning races, and haven't been," he told CNN after announcing his candidacy Thursday.
He says he wants the party to move forward and leave behind the divisions that pitted Mrs. Clinton’s supporters against those of her Democratic primary challenger Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I), leaving factions of the party at odds with one another as the general election approached.
“Reliving 2016 is not really good for business for the Democratic Party," he added. "Obviously, we can learn from the past, but this needs to be about the future. We have much more important things to fight than each other."
The DNC oversees the Democratic Party’s operations, supporting candidates for both small and national offices by staffing field operations, raising campaign funds, and promoting the party’s platform. The committee came under fire last year after hacked emails revealed that former chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz had favored Clinton over Mr. Sanders in the party’s primary by seeking ways to sabotage his candidacy, and that the committee’s interim chair, Donna Brazile, had shared debate questions with Clinton’s campaign while working as a commentator for CNN.
The revelations left voters on both the left and right reeling, with the more progressive wing of Sanders supporters losing faith in the party and its intentions. Entering the new year, the party hopes to broaden its appeal to working class voters without exiling its progressive wing, whose ideologies fall closer to that of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts, before midterm elections in 2018.
But others say it’s too early to tell if the Democratic party needs an overhaul to survive the 21st century.
“The idea that the Democratic coalition is collapsing because they lost an election is a little over the top. But it is the case, because of the loss, that the Democratic Party is trying to figure out what they did wrong,” Hans Noel, a political science professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., previously told The Christian Monitor.
Still, the party sees its clearest route forward through shifting its party-wide messaging.
“You need someone who can bring together the different elements of the party," Dr. Noel added. "There’s a white working class, there are also people of color, women, people who care more about social issues, people who care about foreign policy.”
Surprisingly enough, all of those things could be found in Buttigieg, who won his first election to begin his second term as mayor of South Bend, which is home to just over 100,000 residents and lies adjacent to the University of Notre Dame, in 2011. Before that, he studied at Harvard University and went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He’s also served as a member of the US Navy Reserve, taking a seven-month leave of absence from his position as mayor to serve in Afghanistan in 2014.
Additionally, he’s an openly gay Episcopalian, which could grant him an in with the predominately liberal LGBT community as well more socially moderate Christians.
Despite his small-town status, Buttigieg has become increasingly popular, and more eyes have turned to him in recent years. The Washington Post described him as “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of” in a 2014 piece, and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni even speculated that the 34-year-old could have a rich political career ahead of him – possibly even making his way to the Oval Office.
Buttigieg will spend the next several weeks campaigning for a majority of nearly 450 votes, which will be cast by committee members during the final weekend of February.
"He's a different candidate than we have in the race right now," Indiana’s Democratic Party Chair John Zody said of Buttigieg’s DNC chair candidacy. "He is a mayor, he's younger and has been elected and I think he brings a different profile to the race, certainly among an already impressive group of candidates."
Even before evidence surfaced of the DNC’s plots to sabotage Sanders, he already had ideas for a reworking of the party, pinpointing gaps in the mainstream ideology.
Democrats “are not yet comfortable working in a vocabulary of ‘freedom.’ Conservatives talk about freedom. They mean it,” Buttigieg told the Times's Mr. Bruni. “But they’re often negligent about the extent to which things other than government make people unfree.”
“And that is exactly why the things we talk about as Democrats matter,” he added. “You’re not free if you have crushing medical debt. You’re not free if you’re being treated differently because of who you are. What has really affected my personal freedom more: the fact that I don’t have the freedom to pollute a certain river, or the fact that for part of my adult life, I didn’t have the freedom to marry somebody I was in love with? We’re talking about deep, personal freedom.”