The 2020 presidential contender is meeting powerful donors and charming the coastal media. But what about his day job?
SOUTH BEND, Indiana—Outside Elks Lodge 298, a local television reporter jumped in with a question: “Mayor Buttigieg,” he said, “what does it feel like to be back in South Bend?”
It was Dyngus Day, the Polish-inspired holiday that takes place every year on the Monday after Easter. Like home games at Notre Dame Stadium, it’s one of South Bend’s can’t-miss events. Clubs and bars roll out big grills to fry sausages and rib tips, and it’s more or less an excuse for people to sit around drinking beer while the sun is up. Local politicians make their rounds—delivering speeches, shaking hands, picking up Styrofoam clamshells of food that they swear they’ll eat later. This year, attendees greeted Pete Buttigieg like a celebrity, with stacked copies of his book waiting to be signed.“It’s always good to be home,” Buttigieg told the TV reporter.
Less than a week later, Buttigieg had lunch with Oprah Winfrey in Los Angeles. On Monday, he met with Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s in Harlem, and hours later was Trevor Noah’s guest on The Daily Show. Back home in South Bend, while the mayor was on the road, two shootings took place. Buttigieg released a two-sentence statement saying that “law enforcement and neighborhoods must work together to intervene and stop the cycle of violence.” The local NBC-affiliate reporter Joshua Short took to Twitter to express bewilderment, writing, “People are expecting more of a presence than just a response.” Buttigieg flew to Boston on Tuesday, and he plans to be in Minneapolis on Thursday, Dallas on Friday, and Houston on Saturday.
It’s been like this for months. Buttigieg has become a regular at dinners and cocktail parties in Washington, D.C., and New York, building up the political-tastemaker goodwill that—for better or worse—all candidates lust after. The South Bend airport calls itself international, but contains only one terminal’s worth of gates, and most flights require a stopover at O’Hare to get anywhere outside the Midwest. Buttigieg has occasionally taken to flying private, though his campaign says this is rare and only when the schedule is too tight.
Buttigieg's father died the weekend after the candidate launched his exploratory committee in January, but a memorial service was only held last week. Buttigieg says it was delayed so family could fly in from around the world and arrange a colloquium with former students and research partners of the late professor. The two were very close, and Buttigieg told me a few weeks ago in New Hampshire about how he sometimes still catches himself almost emailing his dad over a story or about the campaign. The memorial service, when it finally happened, created a rare stretch of days off the trail; last week—after stopping in Chicago to fundraise on the way home from New Hampshire—Buttigieg missed the “She the People” women-of-color summit in Houston that many other candidates attended.
Despite the tricky business of running a national campaign and a city at the same time, Buttigieg at least knows that there’s an end to his mission: He’s gone all in on his presidential bid and won’t seek reelection in South Bend this fall.
Bobby Kennedy turned up at Dyngus Day once; so did Bill Clinton. Buttigieg knew of that presidential-campaign legacy when he used to attend merely as mayor. He told me how much he liked the idea of merging traditions now that he’s a local South Bend politician who’s suddenly a serious 2020 candidate. And he’s happy about the chance to show off his city to the national press corps. (Admittedly, he pitched me directly on coming to Dyngus Day last year and the year before; I politely declined both times.)
Buttigieg made his first Dyngus Day appearance 10 years ago, as a 28-year-old on his way to getting crushed in a 2010 state-treasurer run, his first campaign after moving home from the East Coast. He’s been at Dyngus every year since. This year, after waking up early to sign the ceremonial Dyngus Day sausage order and serve food to the needy, he unveiled an honorary street name outside the Elks Lodge and made one more stop before heading back to his new campaign office downtown. Then it was off to New Hampshire for another CNN town hall.
Buttigieg’s unusual presidential campaign leans in to his identity as a small-city mayor—he’s “Mayor Pete,” after all—both implying and sometimes directly claiming that he has more actual responsibility than most of his 2020 opponents, those with day jobs in the House or Senate.
He often says, as he did on Dyngus Day, that “in so many ways, South Bend is our message.” I heard Buttigieg deliver that line at his second stop of the day, inside a packed hall at the West Side Democratic & Civic Club. He was introduced as “POTUS Pete,” with custom bright-blue “Take back the White House/Pete Buttigieg” T-shirts in the back selling for $20 a pop. How he’s run the city, he said, is how he’d run the country.
“Let the rest of the country learn from our city’s story. Let the rest of the country learn that just because we can’t rewind doesn’t mean we turn our back on a great heritage in manufacturing, or a traditional work ethic, or the way that a community is built around its diversity,” Buttigieg said. “Let them learn from a community that knows how to look dead in the eye the things that we haven’t fixed yet, from the need for better economic growth to the need to conquer racial disparities … but knows with each passing day we have to make it better than the day before.”
Buttigieg often points out that he has more government experience than Donald Trump and more executive experience than his Indiana rival Mike Pence—that he has to make decisions and manage day-to-day city services that have an immediate impact on people’s lives, not engage in abstract policy debates in Washington.
But he hasn’t done much of that lately. “It depends on the day,” Buttigieg told me a few weeks ago, when I asked him in the middle of another nonstop campaign swing how much time he was spending each day being mayor.
Becoming an overnight sensation means Buttigieg spends most days of every week on the campaign trail, bouncing between rallies in Iowa and New Hampshire, fundraising in California, squeezing in national TV appearances in New York, skipping down to South Carolina, flying back to California for more events and more TV, with a stop or two in D.C. and campaign planning along the way.
“Basically it’s economy of time,” Buttigieg said as we squished together in the middle row of a black SUV for a short ride back to his campaign office. Boxes of Dyngus Day meat sat on the floor of the front passenger’s seat; a collection of cookies in the shape of his campaign logo balanced on the armrests. Buttigieg and his city have had practice with this whole mayor-from-afar thing, he said—most notably five years ago, when he was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months, with much less contact. (For that stretch, he turned over his duties to the city controller, whom he appointed deputy mayor.)
Compared with that experience, Buttigieg said, staying in touch is easy, but he’s also left instructions with city officials to have decisions teed up whenever he comes back. “Most people who run for president have day jobs, and have to figure out how to do two things at once. It’s probably not possible to do that forever, but it’s certainly possible to do that during a campaign cycle,” he said.
Sort of, counters Regina Williams-Preston, a city council member who’s running to succeed Buttigieg as mayor this year. (He announced in December that he wouldn’t run again, clearing that out of the way before beginning his presidential campaign.)
“I noticed our council agenda is a little lighter,” she says, adding that when Buttigieg gave his big campaign-launch speech at the old Studebaker factory, she was receiving texts from constituents asking whether the city was paying for security. Williams-Preston says she also got texts asking if the candidate is still taking his mayoral salary of $104,000 a year. (He is.)
Nevertheless, Buttigieg’s run has been good PR for South Bend, and Williams-Preston, like others, seemed tickled to watch the national press descend on the city of 100,000. The almost certainly determinative Democratic mayoral primary is May 7, and though everyone knows that Buttigieg is running for president, Williams-Preston says, so many locals are so disconnected from city government that “I don’t think they miss him in their daily lives.”
“His presence at times is needed,” says Karen White, an at-large member of the city council. She says she hasn’t seen one of those times go unanswered yet.
“A lot depends on what the next month or two will bring for him.”
While Buttigieg is a lame duck looking to make a smooth transition in South Bend, he also insists that he’s not just going to hand off the government and be an absentee mayor for the last six months of his term. The city budget process is beginning, and he wants in, he said, in a very Buttigieg way, to make sure South Bend is as “systematic in the capital plan as we are in the operational-funding plan.” The Indiana Republican Party has tagged him “Part-Time Peter,” but Buttigieg said he’s heard no actual complaints from his colleagues or constituents.
“It’s 2019. There’s cellphones. There’s Facebook,” says Tricia Morton, a 56-year-old elementary-school teacher who showed up to the Elks Lodge wearing a headband with a cartoon-style thought bubble that read pete for prez.
“If the city solely relied on Pete being here, we’re in big trouble,” says Tim Scott, who was elected the same year as Buttigieg and noted that he has a full-time job himself in addition to serving as council president. “It’s complicated, and a good problem to have.”
In 2016, Chris Christie was denigrated as an absentee governor as he chased the Republican nomination. After all, what was the governor of New Jersey even doing in Mexico? That misstep left an impression: When Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was weighing a 2020 run, a number of people told him that he’d need to resign if he really wanted to make a serious bid, since he couldn’t travel the country and run a big, complicated city at the same time. Garcetti stressed over the choice and, despite years of groundwork, stopped himself short of entering the race in January.
But Buttigieg’s star has risen more quickly than anyone had expected. There’s no way he’s resigning before his term is up.
“I assess every day whether I’m able to do a good job on both fronts,” he told me. “And as long as that’s the case—and I expect it will be—we’ve just got to keep learning how to do two things at once.”
The black SUV turned onto Jefferson Boulevard, one of the main drags in town. Down the other way was the municipal building, but we were headed toward a newer office building, which houses Buttigieg’s campaign HQ on the third floor. (The space is smaller than it looks in the West Wing walk-and-talk spoofs he’s shot there.) Buttigieg had to go. Another interviewer was waiting for him, and another after that—with a photo shoot for which he’d even broken form and brought a suit jacket to wear. After that, of course, he had another plane to catch.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.