By Jeff Parrott
Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced today that he will make a run to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee, ending weeks of local and national speculation.
Buttigieg said national party figures started calling him and encouraging him to run soon after the Nov. 8 presidential election, in which Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
"The more folks talked to me, the more I became part of the conversation, the more I began to feel that this was so important that I needed to take this seriously," Buttigieg said in an interview. "I never pictured this as something I would seek to do. But like millions of other people, a lot changed for me on Election Day...The stakes have never been higher to have a robust Democratic party that is connecting with Americans in every part of the country, including ours."
Buttigieg becomes the sixth person to formally declare their candidacy for the post, joining Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman; Tom Perez, the secretary of labor; Ray Buckley, the party chair in New Hampshire; Jaime Harrison, South Carolina party chair; and Sally Boynton-Brown, Idaho party chair.
The current interim chair of the DNC is political strategist and columnist Donna Brazile. The DNC sets the support strategy for Democratic candidates at local, state and national levels. It also organizes the Democratic National Convention during presidential election years and sets the party's platform.
Buttigieg declined to identify the Democrats who have approached him about running, saying it was "a mix of different people" who felt "there was room in the conversation for a different kind of voice."
"Some people like the idea of somebody who's maybe not from as much of a federal perspective and not perceived as someone who is sort of driven by Washington," he said.
Buttigieg added that his experience as South Bend's mayor over the past five years matched with "a real need for the party to pay attention to a local perspective."
"The experience of a place like South Bend, and our region more broadly, is actually a really important part of how the party needs to build for the future," he said.
Buttigieg will attempt to leap-frog from his job as mayor of a mid-sized city to a key national post without first holding a statewide or national office. But his profile has been on the rise, with several glowing stories by national media outlets.
In a November article in The New Yorker, President Barack Obama mentioned Buttigieg as one of four people he sees as keys to the party's future.
Buttigieg's run also comes at a time when the Democratic Party is reeling from Clinton's loss and looking for ways to better connect with the Rust Belt voters who helped tip the election.
"This is one of the most talented young leaders in the Democratic Party," David Axelrod, President Obama's former chief strategist, told The New York Times Thursday. "And he comes from the middle of the country, where the party needs to be strengthened."
In an article he posted last month on medium.com, Buttigieg offered a preview of his message to the DNC, writing, "We need to begin with the values that make us Democrats in the first place. If we don't talk about values, many Americans will tune us out. Again. I am a Democrat because I believe in protecting freedom, fairness, families, and the future."
Buttigieg's time as mayor has featured key initiatives such as his push to repair or demolish 1,000 vacant and abandoned houses in 1,000 days, the "Smart Streets" project to make downtown streets more pedestrian and business friendly, a wave of new development proposals and the stabilizing of the city's population.
John Zody, Chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party and a voting member of the DNC announced his support of Buttigieg early Thursday afternoon.
"With investments in things like community development, job creation, and infrastructure during his time as Mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg has the capability of bringing a much-needed Midwest voice to the Democratic Party that will resonate across the country," Zody said. "Pete is a young and dynamic talent that we need at the top of our party, and I am happy to support a Hoosier for DNC Chair."
The Democratic Party plans to elect its next leader seven weeks from now, on Feb. 23-26, following four regional forums the candidates are expected to attend: Jan. 13 in Phoenix, followed by Jan. 27-28 in Houston, Feb. 3-4 in Detroit and Feb. 10-11 in Baltimore. Only the DNC's 447 members are allowed to vote.
Buttigieg plans to attend all the forums. Still, he said South Bend residents should not worry that city affairs will suffer in his absence.
City administrators have adjusted to his United States Navy Reserve duties, including his deployment for several months in 2014 on active duty in Afghanistan.
"We have a superb team that knows when to bring things to me for a decision," Buttigieg said. "They know what I want to do. I make sure that things are running smoothly any time I leave town."
Since he was first elected mayor in November 2011, Buttigieg, a 34-year-old Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, has been the frequent source of speculation that he had larger political ambitions.
He said some people didn't even think he would seek a second term, which he won in November 2015 with 80 percent of the vote, after he publicly announced he was gay.
"My view is that I should do whatever I can do to make myself useful, wherever that is," he said. "That has been here in South Bend, but I see a way to make myself useful more generally to the party. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing as far as my career trajectory, but I do know that it's a moment when there's going to be some incredibly meaningful work, setting up an alternative in the face of the politics that I think are about to happen in our country."
If Buttigieg wins the DNC post and then resigns as mayor, the 85 precinct committee chairs in the city would elect a replacement to serve out his term. The winner must have a majority of votes, or 43 votes, in order to win.
On Tuesday Oliver Davis, a Democratic common council member, announced that he would be interested in succeeding Buttigieg as mayor if he wins the DNC chairmanship.
Buttigieg said it's too early to talk about whom he would like to see lead the city if he leaves.
"I'm an underdog in this race and it's a national campaign," he said. "I'm not a nationally famous person, so I'm realistic also about this effort. I'm in it to win it, but I think it's premature to get into questions like that."
Still, Buttigieg might be selling himself short, said Tim Roemer, a former South Bend area congressman and U.S. ambassador to India.
Roemer ran for DNC chair for four weeks in early 2005 before dropping out of the race as the final challenger to eventual winner Howard Dean. He said Buttigieg's record in South Bend could appeal to a party still smarting over Trump's wins in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"Mayor Pete brings very strong credentials, solid electoral experience and great experience in the Midwest, which is the heart and soul of the country," said Roemer, now a strategic counselor at public affairs firm APCO Worldwide.
Roemer added that "what really matters is your communications and game plan, how you're going to make improvements, how you're going to pay attention to every state and build the party to where it does well."
Buttgieg called being mayor "the job of a lifetime."
"I'm in the mix for another job, in the same way that sometimes you let your employer know that you're being considered for another job," he said. "That's kind of what I'm letting the community know, as my boss. That doesn't mean I'm any less committed over the next seven weeks to making sure that the city is run well and we continue making progress on all the things we have underway."
(c)2017 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)