“What happens very quickly is that your generation becomes part of the story and your face becomes part of the message.”
“I never set out to be a Millennial mayor,” said Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. But youthfulness, he said, became a helpful symbol both in his campaign and as a leader.
In 2012, at age 29, Buttigieg became the youngest person to run a city with more than 100,000 people. He raised his national profile and became the face of a new kind of local politics after running for DNC chair last year and, despite dropping out of the race before the votes were cast, garnered a significant following.
“What happens very quickly is that your generation becomes part of the story and your face becomes part of the message,” Buttigieg said. He says the same month he got in the race because the city was struggling, Newsweek declared South Bend one of “America’s Dying Cities.” “Where it made a difference that I was a young candidate is that running for office is an act of hope—it's only something you do if you believe it makes a difference.”
Buttigieg talked with fellow mayors about the distinct attributes of being both a Millennial and a mayor on a panel last week at Georgetown University by McCourt's Institute of Politics and Public Service.
Mayor Lydia Mihalik of Findlay, Ohio, said she did not set out to become the first female mayor of her small city. She fell into a community and economic development job working for the mayor, after graduating with a political science degree. As her career evolved and the economy stagnated, she realized she had to step up when she ran in 2012. “We needed a change, we were sleepy,” Mihalik said. “I just had a different attitude on how we could deliver public service to our residents and I figured I had a better plan.”
Even Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who was eight years old when his father became the Florida city’s first Cuban mayor in 1985, said he never expected to run for office. “In a way I backed into it,” he said. “I got married, I bought a home, I started paying taxes. I was the victim of a crime and I got involved in my homeowner's association. I was thirty years old and a small business owner.”
The breadth of knowledge needed to govern a city today makes Millennial multitasking look like mayoral training.
“You have to know a little about a lot,” said Mihalik. “A lot of breadth but not as much depth. I don’t have the time or bandwidth to handle a lot of a lot.”
“What's unique about Millennials is we're not afraid to ask questions. There's no problem, no qualms in us saying, ‘Well why do you do that?’ I think it's this constant search for knowledge,” Mihalik said. There’s also a copy-and-paste ethos to local governance that the most socially connected generation gets. “Mayors are really good at sharing passionately, and stealing shamelessly.”
Buttigieg said that local government can close the generational gap quicker, which also tracks the urban-rural divide and the changing global economy. An example: South Bend used to manufacture Studebaker cars, but it shut down in the late 1960s, costing the city 20,000 jobs. (He says that’s why he takes a skeptical view of the scramble for Amazon HQ2’s 50,000 mega-job-bomb.)
“We had to overcome nostalgia and realize things are never going to be the same,” Buttigieg said. “My job during the campaign was to say that's not going to happen, nothing resembling Studebaker's going to come back. And that's okay.”
Today, those old Studebaker factories house internet data centers. But openness to innovation can’t solve everything. Answering a question from student Amanda MacDonald about homelessness in South Bend, Buttigieg noted how a homeless encampment sprouted up just around the corner from those data centers.
“No mayor I've met can claim to have totally figured out the issue of homelessness, but there are some things we know work better,” Buttigieg said, detailing how even the right policies can still come up short. “When you're mayor, especially impossible questions are asked of you, even if there's no clear solution,” he said.
Still, the virtue of small-city government is the chance to apply theory. “There's something about being mayor that forces you, beautifully, to have to contemplate the relationship between general and the particular… You think about it philosophically, but unlike a U.S. senator, the next morning someone impacted by that will find you. You're at the grocery store just trying to get some peanut butter, beer, and toilet paper and they're like 'Why did you do this?' and you've got to have a good answer.”
Those kind of everyday concerns motivated Buttigieg to launch a political action committee called Hitting Home last year after the DNC race raised his national profile. The PAC wants to get Democrats to focus on their local communities as they campaign in the midterms.
It’s also the connective tissue that drives interest in local government for people like MacDonald, a business and public policy graduate student at Georgetown who went to college at Notre Dame in South Bend.
MacDonald, who came to hear Buttigieg speak, said she sees local government as a stepping stone to higher office.
“Millennials are starting out in local government because it’s a great place to start your career and get hands-on experience,” MacDonald said. “I don’t think that I’m going to move back to South Bend, but I would love to work on campaigns that are more national or statewide. I like to keep an eye on rising stars and Mayor Pete is somebody that we all talk about.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified mayor Francis Suarez, and misspelled Lydia Mihalik's last name.