Pete Buttigieg is everything a Yale Man® aspires to be. A Harvard grad who became a Rhodes Scholar and a McKinsey consultant. He didn’t even settle for Bain or the Boston Consulting Group before he became a hometown hero and ran for South Bend’s mayorship. Just 10 days after the 2016 election, Barack Obama told The New Yorker that Mayor Pete, along with Kamala Harris, Michael Bennet and Tim Kaine, was a rising star in the party. He leapfrogged the usually requisite decades of government service before becoming a presidential contender. And that’s gotten under the skin of his 2020 competitors. He’s a threat.

Two days before Veterans Day, The New York Times ran a story called “Why Pete Buttigieg Annoys His Democratic Rivals.” It’s pretty easy to infer why former Vice President Joe Biden might get frustrated with competition from the mayor of a city with a population about 27,000 people shy of New Haven’s. Biden recently lashed out and referred to Mayor Pete as “Mr. President” in a tone the Times characterized as “dripping with condescension.”

Then there’s Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s envy. The Yale graduate’s deep disdain for the South Bend executive is highlighted frequently throughout the piece. In a conversation on the Senate floor with another Yalie running for president, Cory Booker, Sen. Klobuchar was filled with a visible rage at the mere reference to the Midwestern mayor’s name, according to the Times’ sources.

To both Biden and Klobuchar, Buttigieg represents a potential usurper to their purer, more traditional claims to the nomination. They both worked tirelessly in Washington, crafting impeccable resumes, only for some local man from the minor leagues to poach their donors. Buttigieg, on the other hand, failed to get elected as Indiana’s state treasurer. Toni Harp has represented more people than Pete Buttigieg.

And then there’s another scathing critique of Mayor Pete: that he’s entirely the product of an elite system that churns out mediocre, unqualified leaders. To those doubters, the mayor is just another white man advocating for vague policy proposals. And worse, while mayor of South Bend, Buttigieg contributed to institutional racism by overseeing a police department that was disproportionately white despite a quarter of South Bend’s population being black. That same police force was implicated in the fatal shooting of Eric Logan last spring, leading to fierce protests from his constituents.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke is said to have thought of Buttigieg as a “human weather vane.” Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro stated that Mayor Pete was “going by the old playbook of following the focus groups, going by what political consultants tell you.” And Elizabeth Warren proclaimed, “I’m not running a consultant-driven campaign with some vague ideas that are designed not to offend anyone.”
But the mayor’s still gaining steam.

To his critics, Pete Buttigieg is both an interloper whose meteoric rise is a stinging critique of traditional party structures and the natural byproduct of an elite upbringing that generates the same cookie-cutter leaders over and over again. But then, we have to reconcile the fact that not every Rhodes Scholar consultant becomes a top-tier presidential candidate at 37, nor does every small-town mayor who dares to call for change — just ask Wayne Messam.

For me, the appeal of Mayor Pete is threefold. For one, there’s the history-making aspect of his campaign; he’s one of the first openly gay candidates for president. It’s hard not to find charming the strength exhibited by his coming out right before his mayoral reelection. And there was an undeniable magic in his March CNN town hall where he chastised Mike Pence for sticking by the “porn-star president.” Never before has the country had an openly queer president, and he dared to try to be the first.

Second, there’s the legend of his supreme intelligence. There’s the allure of his Rhodes Scholarship and that in 2000, he won a high school essay contest praising Bernie Sanders’ commitment to his convictions. And Mayor Pete has the perfect anecdote to contrast himself to our current wordsmith president: that he learned Norwegian to continue reading an author he really enjoyed.

His commitment to service is a stark distinction from the profit-driven former CEO of the Trump Organization. After obtaining a fancy Ivy League degree and securing a position at the hallowed McKinsey, Mayor Pete decided to put his life on the line and serve in the armed forces in Afghanistan. He sacrificed a few months as a mayor to do a tour abroad. And the very fact that he went home to serve as mayor of his own city in the first place rather than hovering in powerful DC circles suggests a dedication to community building over prestige. He cared about building infrastructure rather than raising stock prices. He cared about his people.

Why has Mayor Pete had such an explosive rise? Is it deeply unfair? I don’t know. I don’t think any of us know. I’m not sure it’s helpful for us to dwell in resentment. He’s here, and he’s challenging most of the major players. And he might have accumulated fancy pedigrees along the way, but what’s made him last despite his competitors’ resentment is his recent commitment to living by sacrifice and acting on genuine concern. Maybe, it might be a good idea if you’re going to accept a consulting job, to also try to help your community. There’s a small city in our backyard worth listening to, larger than South Bend. Try it. You might become president.

JACOB HUTT is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at
jacob.hutt@yale.edu .

Correction, Nov. 13: A previous version of this article stated that Buttigieg is “the first openly gay candidate for president.” In fact, he is one of the first openly gay candidates for president.

  • doc2513

    It’s a bit of hyperbole to call Buttigieg’s candidacy a “meteoric rise,” given that he is polling in single digits and hasn’t won anything. You should revisit this column after the convention if and when he has something to show for his efforts.