Amid partisanship in Washington and deep political divides across the country, there is one Democratic presidential hopeful that Republicans leaders who know him find difficult to criticize: South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a 37-year-old veteran, Rhodes Scholar, and happily married gay man.
Despite his progressive views, Buttigieg has good working relationships with Republicans in his state, a spirit that he hopes to take to the national stage.
“Mayor Pete is well liked, even among Republicans,” Brian Howey, who writes about Indiana politics on howeypolitics.com, told the Washington Examiner. Howey said that Buttigieg is friendly with Republican Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and had a decent working relationship with Vice President Mike Pence when he was Indiana’s governor.
Jake Teshka, the only Republican on the South Bend City Council, said that he disagrees with Buttigieg on national issues such as healthcare and on some local issues such as the timing of infrastructure spending, but acknowledged he has done a lot to revitalize South Bend. He praised Buttigieg’s leadership.
“He’s very logical, reasonable, and pragmatic in the way that he governs, and I think that he seeks common ground,” Teshka said. “All that you can ask for out of a leader, really.”
Buttigieg surged to third place in an Iowa Democratic caucus poll released this week, earning 11 percent and trailing only former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Buttigieg will face challenges reaching across the aisle if elected, however. Republican strategist Alex Conant said that making progress on bipartisan issues is “a lot easier to do in municipal politics than in Washington.”
While Buttigieg earned strong support from voters in South Bend, winning re-election with more than 80 percent of the vote in 2015, that won't happen nationwide.
“Given Buttigieg's many liberal positions, like packing the Supreme Court, I doubt many Republican voters would consider voting for him if he was the Democratic nominee,” Conant said.
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Jennifer Holdsworth, a Democratic strategist who was Buttigieg’s campaign manager when he ran for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that Buttigieg’s biographical details get him in the conversation, but “it’s what he says from that that’s really going to appeal to people.
“Mayor Pete sets himself apart because he’s redefining the language to talk about policy,” Holdsworth said. “He’s reclaiming the language that the conservative right has co-opted over the last several decades.”
Buttigieg demonstrated that message in a stop in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday, spinning words like “freedom” and “security” to fit liberal principles.
“I will argue that when actually you take freedom, democracy, and security seriously, they point you in a decidedly progressive direction,” Buttigieg told a packed room. “Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree.”
“It is time for some of the most prominent and visible voices in our Democratic Party to come from the red states,” Buttigieg said.
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Unlike other presidential hopefuls serving in Congress, Buttigieg’s limited political experience as a mid-size city mayor means that he does not have a long record of votes on controversial political issues that could be a liability for him in the Democratic primary. He has faced criticism for some of his mayoral decisions, though.
Last year, Buttigieg vetoed a zoning change that would have allowed a pro-life women’s care clinic to be built next to an abortion clinic, saying at the time that “it is far from clear that a neighborhood benefits from co-locating facilities with such opposite views.”
Notre Dame University President Father John Jenkins said he was “saddened” and “disappointed” by Buttigieg’s veto, and a Notre Dame adjunct professor said that the veto violated freedom of speech.
But the pro-life center controversy ended happily for the pro-life clinic. Jenny Hunsberger, vice president of the pro-life Women’s Care Center in South Bend, said that Buttigieg was “happy to meet” with the center’s organizers after issuing the veto. Within days, the center found a different location across the street that was properly zoned. It is planning to open at the end of May.
In his first year in office, 2012, Buttigieg demoted the police chief after an FBI investigation found that the chief improperly recorded police phone calls. One former police employee said the tapes contain racist comments and discussion of illegal acts. The city council tried to subpoena the tapes, but Buttigieg refused to release them without a court order due to wiretap laws. The legal fight over the tapes is ongoing and has cost the city around $2 million.
“He inherited this mess and I think he dealt with it the best he knew how,” the Republican councilman Teshka said, though he would like to provide transparency to the public on the matter.
[Also read: Organization sues to open abortion clinic in the town where Pete Buttigieg is mayor]