Last month, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg drew crowds across the Las Vegas Valley in his first trip to the Silver State as a presidential candidate. (Well, he hadn’t officially announce yet, but he did within a week of that trip.) Yesterday, Buttigieg returned to Nevada to headline the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Las Vegas awards dinner and meet some more voters around town.
We watched as Buttigieg wowed the audience at the HRC awards dinner with his talk of change, hope, and values. So what else did he say, and how did that answer Democratic voters’ questions on what Buttigieg really stands for?
How “Mayor Pete” has stepped up to compete
On April 8, we caught Pete Buttigieg at Madhouse Coffee near Summerlin. While there, he lamented, “As Democrats, we talk about our policies, maybe a little too much.” He soon added, “We’ve got to talk about our values [… and] we’ve got to talk about our lives.”
Since then, Buttigieg’s political value within the Democratic Party has definitely risen. He’s been criss-crossing the nation, enjoying a constant stream of adoring crowds, becoming a national media darling, drawing the ire of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, attracting the support of key Democratic Party “power players”, and (of course) experiencing a nice bump in his poll numbers.
However, Buttigieg’s rise hasn’t entirely been a smooth ride. While Buttigieg has been stating his preference for talking values over detailing policies, fellow candidates like U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) have countered that they can walk and chew gum at the same time by tying their respective policy plans to their stated values. And with former Vice President and newly minted Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden already being challenged by progressive activists over his wokeness (or lack thereof?), some progressives are also challenging Buttigieg’s habit of sidestepping specifics on health care, civil rights, climate action, gun violence, and other issues that have taken center stage at this early stage in caucus/primary season.
“Even with everything we’ve been through, I believe in the possibility of change and hope in our country.”
– Pete Buttigieg
Speaking to a sold-out room of about 750 members and supporters at Caesars Palace, including local elected leaders like U.S. Rep. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) and Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford (D), Buttigieg followed HRC President Chad Griffin and thanked the organization for all the work they do to further civil rights for LGBTQ+ Americans.
“When it comes to coming out, everyone takes one’s own time. For me, it took a little more time,” Buttigieg recalled. He continued, “I realized, in Afghanistan, at age 33, I could be killed in action without knowing what it was like to be in love.”
According to Buttigieg, this is when he decided to write the op-ed in which he came out to his constituents. He feared his “socially conservative” constituents would reject him. Instead, as Buttigieg noted, “What happened was I got reelected with 80% of the vote.”
Buttigieg used his own coming out story as a launchpad for a larger narrative of a nation trying to emerge from the “American carnage” that defines Donald Trump’s presidency. As Buttigieg sees it, “Even with everything we’ve been through, I believe in the possibility of change and hope in our country.”
“Let’s do something truly different. Change is coming, ready or not. The test of our time is whether we will rise up to this challenge.”
– Pete Buttigieg
So what exactly is Buttigieg out to change? As he did at Madhouse Coffee last month, Buttigieg said last night, “We have to remember that in 2020, we have the chance to change the channel. We’re not going to do it by out-insulting Donald Trump.”
Buttigieg continued, “I’d be happy to debate faith. I’d be happy to debate service. I’d be happy to debate marriage with this President, but we can’t let the President define this election. We have to offer something different. We have to offer our own message of change.”
But of course, all 21 of the Democrats vying for the opportunity to unseat Trump next year are all offering their own respective messages of change. What exactly makes Buttigieg’s message different?
For one, Buttigieg continually stresses the prospect of generational change that better prepares America for a better future: “Our focus can not just be about winning the election. It has to be about winning an era.” He added, “Let’s do something truly different. Change is coming, ready or not. The test of our time is whether we will rise up to this challenge.”
“We’re told we have to choose between supporting an auto worker and a trans woman of color, without stopping to think about the fact that sometimes the auto worker is a trans woman of color, and she definitely needs all the security she can get.”
– Pete Buttigieg
Some seven weeks before the HRC Gala, a voter who identifies as a queer person of color asked Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) why he should back her over the people of color who are running, which prompted Gillibrand to respond with a story of her child’s classmate to explain why she fights so hard for LGBTQ+ civil rights. Then just two weeks before the HRC Gala, Anabella Iguirre Alarcon shared her harrowing story of surviving sexual assault at her workplace at the SEIU/CAP Forum, which prompted former HUD Secretary Julián Castro to respond with his plans of action to protect immigrants’ civil rights and curb workplace abuses of power. Both are examples of how some of the other candidates have been connecting their values to their policies.
In the last month, Pete Buttigieg has come under fire from some progressive activists for what’s felt like his sidestepping of questions on intersectional inequality and demands for solutions to this growing crisis. Buttigieg seemed ready to respond, at least to an extent, last night when he condemned Trump’s brand of “peak white identity politics that’s used to tear apart people who’d otherwise have common interests”. He then proceeded to flip the script on “identity politics” as he declared, “We’re told we have to choose between supporting an auto worker and a trans woman of color, without stopping to think about the fact that sometimes the auto worker is a trans woman of color, and she definitely needs all the security she can get.”
While he did specifically mention the Equality Act, a key HRC legislative priority, as necessary to finally ensure nationwide civil rights protections for LGBTQ+ Americans, Buttigieg continued this pattern of emphasizing general “values” over specific policy solutions. Still, he vowed to act to end institutionalized sexism and racism along with changing the economic and political system that favors billionaires like Sheldon Adelson over working-class Americans.
For Buttigieg, “I am here to build bridges and tear down walls. With your help we can tear down those walls between fellow Americans.” He received thunderous applause in the full house at Caesars Palace, though we’ll have to wait and see if this will be enough to ensure Buttigieg continues to catch fire among the larger Democratic audience all the way to Caucus Day.