/‘Why not me?’ Big-city mayors watch with envy as Buttigieg surges

‘Why not me?’ Big-city mayors watch with envy as Buttigieg surges

Pete Buttigieg

“What has allowed Pete [Buttigeig] to be successful is that South Bend doesn’t have the same demands that a New York City or a Los Angeles mayor has,” said Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist. | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

2020 elections

‘The irony is that the South Bend mayor is being taken seriously and the New York mayor’s not.’

05/12/2019 06:49 AM EDT

Updated 05/12/2019 10:40 AM EDT


LOS ANGELES — No mayor has ever ascended directly to the White House. So, Pete Buttigieg’s surprising performance in the Democratic primary has been met with a dose of excitement in the nation’s city halls — along with some humility.

Buttigieg, the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city, has been steeped in television coverage, raised millions of dollars and been photographed with his husband, Chasten, for the cover of Time magazine.

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Meanwhile, New York’s Bill de Blasio, the mayor of the nation’s largest city, is having difficulty persuading anyone — the media, his own constituents — to take his potential run for president seriously.

“Everybody’s going to laugh at him” if he runs, said Doug Herman, a Democratic strategist. “The irony is that the South Bend mayor is being taken seriously and the New York mayor’s not.”

And it isn’t just de Blasio. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who considered running for president before demurring earlier this year, has been asked more than once whether Buttigieg’s success has made him reconsider his choices.

“Mayor Pete, somebody that is a veteran like you, is a mayor like you, is a Rhodes scholar like you, is a pianist like you,” a reporter asked Garcetti in Los Angeles recently, where he appeared alongside Buttigieg. “Do you think, ‘That could have been me?’”

Perhaps it could have been Garcetti. Or former mayors Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans or Michael Bloomberg of New York or any number of big-city mayors or former mayors sitting 2020 out. The Democratic primary once appeared likely to present an opening for a politician who could lean on a record of executive experience in a big, heavily Democratic city.

But what Buttigieg’s success brought to light more than anything is that the particulars of the position were never all that important — that the lane that once appeared to exist for mayors was, in fact, incidental to the office.

“He’s not carrying the flag for mayors,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive consultant who advised Cynthia Nixon in her primary campaign against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year. “Mayor is part of his qualification, [but] he’s running as a millennial, he’s running as a veteran, he’s running a historic candidacy as the first LGBTQ candidate. So there’s a lot of things that make Buttigieg special.”

Still, she said, “I think when mayors, when other elected officials look at his actual qualifications, it’s easy to see how they could look in the mirror and say, ‘Why not me?’”

More than a year ago, when the Democratic primary field was first beginning to take shape, mayors began presenting themselves as credible contenders for the very reason that they were mayors. They pointed to their city hall executive experience and their burgeoning influence within the Democratic Party. With President Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans running Congress before the midterm elections, large Democratic urban centers were a place of refuge for progressives.

“It’s definitely a season for cities,” Buttigieg said last year. “And it’s definitely a season for mayors.”

But then mayors started dropping from the 2020 landscape. Garcetti passed on a run. So did Landrieu and Bloomberg.

Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, is running. But he polled at about 1 percent in the most recent Morning Consult survey. So is John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor and Denver mayor. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the former mayor of Newark, stands at 3 percent.

And de Blasio? More than three-quarters of New Yorkers think he shouldn’t run for president, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.

“Who Hasn’t told Bill de Blasio That He Shouldn’t Run for President?” a New York magazine headline read.

David Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, said it is possible that Garcetti and de Blasio, among other high-profile mayors, were burdened by being known too well by Democrats. Buttigieg’s relative anonymity offered his supporters the excitement of discovering something new.

“Pete was a fresh face, and I think he significantly benefited from that in this process,” Holt said. “If they’d never heard of Cory Booker for some reason three months ago, then I think they’d be pretty excited about him, too. But he and other known candidates have been known quantities for a [long] time.”

On the other hand, Holt said, “For most people, my experience is they’ve never heard of Mayor Buttigieg in their lives.” His candidacy “was kind of an exciting development.”

While not widely known to Democratic voters, Buttigieg had gained some significant connections to party activists through his work with fellow mayors and during his long shot bid to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And Buttigieg was less encumbered by the baggage of government than some of his counterparts in bigger cities.

“What has allowed Pete to be successful is that South Bend doesn’t have the same demands that a New York City or a Los Angeles mayor has,” Herman said.

Buttigieg is governing a relatively small city — South Bend’s population is just more than 100,000 people — but his supporters do not care. When searching for identifiers, they are just as likely to mention that he is young, gay, a polyglot or a veteran as they are to define him as a mayor.

Bill Carrick, who managed former Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign and who advises Garcetti, said of Buttigieg’s success, “I don’t think it has anything to do with being a mayor.”

“That’s all attributable to him — his personality and the way he articulates a message,” Carrick said. “Here’s this guy who is very smart, articulate, interesting background. Yeah, sure, mayor, but also a veteran. … He seized the moment.”

Like most other Democrats, Buttigieg remains far behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in early presidential contest polls. But he is running with the top handful of candidates behind them, and he is raising money at a furious clip.

At a sold-out fundraiser at a West Hollywood gay bar this week, Buttigieg told supporters that, at this point in the campaign, he had expected to be “spending our time explaining how to say my name and convincing people that I ought to be somewhere in this process so that we could fight our way onto the debate stage and have a breakout moment maybe in June.”

“Instead, we qualified for the debates a long time ago,” Buttigieg said. “People are still trying to figure out how to say my name. But instead of trying to claw our way into the top 10, we are consolidating our position as one of the top candidates in the presidential race.”

Many mayors are glad to see it. Steve Benjamin, the Columbia, S.C., mayor and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said many mayors are excited about Buttigieg’s candidacy and are hopeful that he could help refocus Washington’s attention on America’s cities.

For years, Benjamin said, “We’ve been, to some degree, knocking our heads against a wall looking for a partner in Washington, D.C. … A lot of mayors are excited to see a peer running and finding some success.”

Garcetti, responding to a reporter’s question about whether Buttigieg’s candidacy made him second-guess his own decision not to run, answered quickly: “No, I think that this is a great candidate for president.

“I’ve never had an ounce of regret.”

Then Garcetti, who has not endorsed a candidate and is appearing with many of them as they come through Los Angeles, called Buttigieg a “kindred spirit.”

As a fellow mayor, he said, “He gets to be my avatar, and I get to run for president through him.”

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