1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

US Primaries: Who is 'Mayor Pete' Buttigieg?

Jenipher Camino Gonzalez
February 7, 2020

US politician Pete Buttigieg went from a small city mayor to Democratic presidential frontrunner in just one year. If elected, he could be the youngest and the first openly gay person to become president of the US.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg at a campaign stop in Iowa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Zuma/J. Hogan

Pete Buttigieg was catapulted to frontrunner in the Democratic Party primary, after an unexpectedly strong showing in the Iowa Caucus. 

The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, narrowly defeated Senator Bernie Sanders in a controversial caucus election that was riddled with irregularities.

Buttigieg referred accurately to his potential of winning the caucus as "an improbable hope.” Just a year before, he was an obscure figure in American politics, as the two-term mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The city of roughly 100,000 people is mostly known for being the home of the prestigious Notre Dame University.

Despite his low profile, Buttigieg's exploratory committee was a total success, and he became a hit on social media thanks to his various talents and the unusual last name.

A story surfaced of him learning Norwegian just to be able to read a series of books and later, a video of the Mayor Pete – as he is fondly known in South Bend – actually speaking the language with Norwegian journalists went viral.

Pundits and followers also lauded the candidate's intellect and his status as a Rhodes Scholar. Another video of him playing the piano created an aura of a renaissance man, someone who could stand as the opposite of Donald Trump.

Buttigieg embraced the hype and announced his candidacy on April 14, 2019. Right away, the mayor began surging at the polls and raising large sums of money for his campaign.

Read more: The next US president: Wall Street's fear of the left

Millennial, gay, veteran

The razor-thin victory over Sanders in Iowa put Mayor Pete in the spotlight, but the race for the Democratic nomination is sure to be tough and uncertain for everyone involved. If the 38-year-old Buttigieg wins the nomination and then defeats Donald Trump, he would be the youngest president in US history. He would also be the first openly gay president ever.

Buttigieg has not made his sexual orientation central to his candidacy, but he acknowledged his own gay marriage and the fragility of having earned that right in today's America. "Our marriage exists by the grace of a single vote on the US Supreme Court,'' Buttigieg said during his announcement speech.

Buttigieg has, however, put his youth at the center of who he is as a candidate. In his campaign website, he describes himself as part of a generation that "came of age with school shootings, the generation that provided the majority of the troops in the conflicts after 9/11, the generation that is on the business end of climate change, and the generation that —unless we take action — stands to be the first to be worse off economically than their parents.”

With a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 under his belt, Mayor Pete would also be the first presidential nominee of either US party to have substantial military experience in over a decade, since the late Republican John McCain.

Buttigieg has sought to fuse his unique life experiences to present himself as a modern, fresh and sensible alternative to both Trump and other more left-leaning candidates in the race.

Many already see him as a younger version of fellow-moderate Joe Biden and someone who could win in the US Midwest.

Lack of experience and big money

But critics have seized on Mayor Pete's youthfulness to point out his lack of experience. Joe Biden said in a campaign stop that there was a risk in the party nominating "someone who's never held an office higher than mayor of a town of 100,000 people in Indiana.”

Buttigieg has also taken heat from the left over his donor base and the presumption that he is beholden to wealthy interests. In particular, he has been slammed for his decision to conceal his donor information.

His main challenger, Bernie Sanders, has honed in on this message and painted the young mayor as someone who has already been bought by the rich.

"I like Pete Buttigieg. Nice guy,'' Sanders said, "but we are in a moment where billionaires control not only our economy but our political life.''

Every evening, DW sends out a selection of the day's news and features. Sign up here.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Kherson, June 7, 2023
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage