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    Rocket Man: Mayor Pete’s Big Moment

    By Andrea Shorter–

    He was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, and is the son of an immigrant. Both of his parents were professors at the University of Notre Dame. A graduate of Harvard College, he was also a Rhodes Scholar. He served in the Navy Reserves, and at age 29 became mayor of his hometown in 2011. A millennial, he is just two years older than the legal age allowed to become president of the U.S. He’s a Democrat. He is openly gay, and has a husband. He has a hard to pronounce, but unforgettable, last name: Buttigieg (boot-edge-edge). You can call him Mayor Pete. And, unless you’ve been sequestered in jury duty since January, there is no way that you don’t know that Mayor Pete is running for president.

    Mayor Pete is the one presidential hopeful among the cast of 22 plus Democrats that literally seems to have come out of nowhere—South Bend is not “nowhere” per se, but close—and taken the national stage by storm. People seem to really like Mayor Pete, and not just LGBT people, but all kinds of people. What’s not to like? Even Oprah wants to have lunch with him. Since his big debut onto the national stage via a CNN Town Hall, a series of late-night talk show appearances, a bold appearance on Fox News, and his eventual official announcement for a run for the White House, he continues to rank within the top tier of polls casting him as high as third under Biden and Sanders.

    Buttigieg isn’t the first openly gay person to run for president as a major party candidate. That historical distinction belongs to Fred Karger, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2012. It’s too soon to tell in this two-year race, but it would appear that this current Democratic candidate is closest to the mere idea of primary nomination than his Republican predecessor was ever going to be.

    The phenomena of a young, intelligent, clean cut, gay man of faith—who rightfully proclaims to have more elected and military experience than the current president—has so far proven more than a flash in the pan/flavor of the month media darling. He has managed to sustain real interest and attention to his candidacy well beyond the stretch of a few weeks. He is a bona fide, serious top tier contender in the most diverse field of presidential primary contestants in U.S. political history.

    How and why Buttigieg has become such a popular candidate is up for debate. Is it his educational pedigree? Is it his millennial youthfulness? Is he the able representative of the rust-belt, red-state Midwesterner in a party that has been dominated by bi-coastal urbanites? Is it his cool, calm and collected intellectual tact, yet down to earth manner, which folks find appealing, especially compared to the temperament and manner of the ever-troubling sitting president? How does the fact that he is gay play into the mix? Other than the predictable bashers, does the majority of anyone else really care that he is gay? How do we feel if his being gay is not a major or leading feature of his candidacy?

    It is possible that the appeal of Mayor Pete is all of the above and so much more? The fact that he is a lesser known entity than the majority of the democratic slate to date makes him a hopeful breath of fresh air. It’s been said that he has that Obama glow about him—young, virtually unknown, whip smart, aspirational, potential coalition dream come true — but let’s not go overboard here.

    His ascendance does place him among the other 2–3 white males consistently dominating the polls: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and, intermittently, Beto O’Rourke. A woman and person of color, Senator Kamala Harris, is holding her own as the candidate consistently polling immediately under or among these candidates. Still, the fact remains that Mayor Pete’s status as a white male—not straight white male—could possibly be giving him a bit of a leg up in the field. He’s proving to be quite likable, relatable and maybe even presidential electable without presenting any controversial, bold or provoking ideological or policy position. He is sane, nice, smart and safe. He’s new, yet familiar.

    While the election of Trump to “Make America Great Again” was a signifier and expression of some voters to course correct after two terms of the first (and, in their minds, hopefully last) Black president, this era is quite possibly reflexive as well: a want towards getting back to a pre-Trump and maybe even pre-Obama safe, comforting normalization about the American presidency (white male). Hence, in part, the Biden effect. 

    As a gay white male, Mayor Pete allows for the notion of familiarity as a white male, while at the same time giving some service to the idea that we are, in fact, still ready for more representative diversity. After all, we did elect a Black man president twice.

    As women and candidates of color holding higher office than that of a small town mayor strive to break through the primary nomination ceiling that Obama and Clinton worked to shatter into a million pieces, it does beg the question of how and why Mayor Pete—as wonderful a candidate as he might be—is so quickly, widely and ably rocketing up so much closer to that ceiling than other “diverse” candidates.

    Does his status as a white male mean that he is actually contending for the presidency, while the other “diverse” candidates are consequently and eventually contending for the vice presidency? Yes, this a far-fetched and troublesome notion of sorts. Of course, there is more to Mayor Pete than being a nice, smart young white gay guy from the Midwest. There is also more to the other candidates than being women or a person of color.

    The good news is that we have a field of candidates that is closer to representing the gender, racial and sexual orientation diversity of our nation. I am glad that Mayor Pete is in the running as well. As a fellow Hoosier, I am already quite proud of Mayor Pete. He is off to a great start, and promises to make the LGBTQ community and America at large proud.

    Andrea Shorter is a Commissioner and the former President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights and marriage equality. A Co-founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.