2020 Election

Pete Buttigieg Enters Presidential Race With a Message of Generational Change

4 minute read

Pete Buttigieg formally announced his bid for the presidency on Sunday, drawing thousands of people out into the freezing rain to hear his call for a new generation of American leadership.

“One day they will write histories, not just about one campaign or one presidency but about the era that began here today, in this building, where past, present, and future meet,” the South Bend, Ind., mayor told a crying and cheering crowd. “It’s cold out, but we’ve had it with winter. You and I have the chance to usher in a new American spring.”

The line stretched for blocks outside the event, held at a long-abandoned Studebaker auto plant, once the engine of South Bend’s economy and now a potent symbol of its decline. People waited all morning in a driving rain, braving winds that flipped umbrellas inside out. The crowd was overwhelmingly white, which may ultimately present a challenge for Buttigieg as he seeks to connect with the broader Democratic base and build a coalition outside his hometown.

Buttigieg, 37, is a former Navy intelligence officer who has been mayor of South Bend for eight years. He’s risen in the early 2020 polls as he positions his campaign as a way to move past the partisan battles of Washington and the internal squabbles of the bruising 2016 Democratic primary. A Rhodes Scholar and a Christian who speaks seven languages, his campaign is rooted in his fluency in a particular dialect: the language of the overlooked Midwestern voter.

His announcement speech was light on policy: he didn’t mention Medicare for All or raising taxes. Instead, Buttigieg organized his message around three pillars—freedom, security and democracy—as he sought to reframe progressive issues like reproductive rights and climate change in ways that connect with Midwestern conservatives. Buttigieg describes abortion rights as a matter of freedom, climate change as a question of security, gerrymandering as a question of democracy. When he talked about climate change, Buttigieg didn’t endorse the Green New Deal (an idea he once called “the right beginning”), but instead echoed President Barack Obama’s frustration with Republican inaction. “You don’t like our plan?” he said. “Fine. Show us yours!”

Buttigieg is the first serious presidential contender who is openly gay, and the atmosphere around his speech was infused with the exuberance and anguish that has characterized the recent history of the LGBTQ rights movement. Before Buttigieg came onstage, attendees gasped when the campaign started playing Barbra Streisand’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” then started laughing and singing along to the now-iconic show tune. A few minutes later, as Buttigieg imagined going back in time to tell his closeted teenage self that “on that day he announces his campaign for president, he’ll do it with his husband looking on,” grown men in the audience openly sobbed. When Buttigieg’s husband Chasten came out to greet him after the speech, they kissed and the crowd roared.

Most of all, Buttigieg returned throughout his speech to the idea of generational change. He cast the election as a choice between America’s future and its past. “Such a moment calls for hopeful and audacious voices from communities like ours,” he said. “And yes, it calls for a new generation of leadership.”

That message seemed to be resonating with supporters of all ages. “I really want to see the younger generation take over,” says Linda Zach, a 67-year old retired retail worker and homemaker. “The younger ones are gonna inherit everything we screwed up.”

“It’s a whole new world out there,” says Alice Mayer, a 62-year old retired hospital consultant. “We need somebody in office who understands that.”

It’s a sentiment that is as much about boredom as it is about age. Some of the Buttigieg supporters at the Studebaker plant had driven from across Indiana or flown from Los Angeles to hear something new. Many said they were sick of hearing the same arguments and ideas they had heard in 2016.

“Pete has a quiet passion,” says Jacquie Bontrager-McCann, a 33-year old director of member experience at a credit union who supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary but drove three hours from central Indiana to hear Buttigieg speak. She plans to vote for Buttigieg, she says, because she thinks his “nuanced” approach to issues can help him win over moderate voters.

Both Zach and Mayer said they supported Sanders in the 2016 primary too, but that now they were all in for Buttigieg.

“He’s looking at the future, while Bernie’s been there, done that,” says Mayer. “We’re ready for a new voice.”

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Write to Charlotte Alter/South Bend, Ind. at charlotte.alter@time.com