By Reily Connaughton, Policy Director
Last June, at the end of a primary battle between sixty-eight-year-old Hillary Clinton and seventy-four-year-old Bernie Sanders, the New York Times published a much needed list of fourteen young leaders in the Democratic Party. After the destruction of the “blue wall” in the electoral college and the election of Donald Trump, the Party needs that list now more than ever. A recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll shows that members of the Democratic Party want “new blood” in leadership headed into the elections in 2018 and 2020. However, since the fallout of the election, old faces and old ideas have surfaced in the race for Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair. Keith Ellison, a congressman from Minnesota, represents the old, populist left of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that failed to connect with a majority of Democrats during the primaries. Tom Perez, the current Labor Secretary, represents the Obama coalition that fell apart across the Midwest because of the focus on turning out certain segments of voters instead of speaking to the national interest. Ray Buckley of New Hampshire and Jamie Harrison of South Carolina both have strong ties to the Democratic establishment that fell apart, especially on the statewide level, this past election season. On January 5th, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg (one of the party’s rising stars) jumped into the race for Chair of the DNC. In doing so, he created a new path of youth and innovation, free of the 2015-2016 proxy battles. The Democrats should take that path and back Buttigieg for DNC Chair.
The thirty-four-year-old Mayor has the dream resumé for downtrodden liberals in 2017. Born and raised in South Bend, he has deep roots in the part of the country most prominent in the minds of Democrats. He rose from a middle class family to attend Harvard, where he wrote an award winning essay on political courage and eventually became a Rhodes Scholar. In 2011, he became one of the youngest mayors in history at 29 when he won his election with over 70% of the vote. Three years later, he left city hall to serve in Afghanistan as a Naval Intelligence Officer for almost eight months. The year after his return, Indiana adopted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Mayor Buttigieg came out as a gay man. His impressive record gained him national attention and The New York Times even ran the headline “The First Gay President?”. The Party should not solely embrace his identity, however, but his values and vision of the future.
Before he entered the race, Mayor Buttigieg penned an exploratory essay explaining the strategy he believes the party should adopt to reintroduce itself. His vision is a modern liberal opposition to the Trump ideology based on “protecting freedom, fairness, families and the future.” Moving forward, the Buttigieg agenda represents a movement where “salvation begins with the local.” In 2018, one of the major tests of the party will not only be the federal congress and opposition to President Trump, but also the state-level repair. Democrats are at historically low levels of influence in state governments, and the coming gubernatorial races will be a central test of whether the party has been resuscitated. Many of these governorships are in states with either incumbent Republican governors or state legislatures. This means that the DNC needs someone at the top who understands that “Democrats need to absorb the fact that winning the popular vote is not enough, see that the future trends of the electoral map alone will not save us”. Mayor Buttigieg is a leader who has a history of reaching out to voters inside and outside the traditional Democratic voter base.
This ideology and roadmap is rooted in the day-to-day practicality of seeing policy implemented through city government. The mayor would help shift the focus from appealing to different groups of voters in an attempt to bind them together to defining Democratic values and their direct impact on all people’s lives. South Bend is home to both large minority populations and blue collar, white working class voters - two groups that took center stage in the 2017 election. The city is a microcosm of America, and the mayor has implemented a winning strategy that won him huge majorities twice. Buttigieg understands that the party of Franklin Roosevelt is at its best when it innovates, not when it stubbornly sticks to stringent political beliefs.
South Bend was a city in need of a visionary, “a company town that lost its company.” In the mid-1960’s, the last Studebaker rolled off the line and tens of thousands of people were suddenly out of work. The auto assembly plant closing down in the city of less than 100,000 created the conditions for economic distress. The plant was torn down and any empty field was left in its place. Factories that supplied the plant were left without a purpose. Working class people were forced to flee the city and look for opportunities in the suburbs. This narrative is familiar across the entire Rust Belt region of the country. Unlike others in the DNC race, he can authentically say he understands the plight that the Rust Belt has felt and knows the way forward.
His first act as mayor was to begin a program that would knock down or renovate over 1,000 homes in his first 1,000 days. The administration also capitalized on the fiberoptic cable that runs through the city and its centrality to the 21st century internet economy. The empty field was turned into Ignition Park which has seen data companies flock to the area. The old auto plant was reimagined “into a mix of office, commercial, residential and storage space”. It was clear that the new administration’s primary purpose was going to focus on refashioning the image of the city while transforming its economy. And for the first time in nearly fifty years, the population of South Bend has grown instead of shrunk.
Critics of a Buttigieg DNC might point to the strong showing of President-elect Trump in the regions where the mayor comes from. But on the federal level, the vision and South Bend example could not only provide a clear contrast to the Trump agenda, but also help liberals win back some of the working class that have left the big tent. Many of the voters that broke for Trump were swayed, in part, by his message on trade. While Hillary Clinton and the Democrats didn’t put up as clear of a message on the central issue, the Republican nominee hammered home his protectionist plan. He harped on bad trade deals and boasted about being able to bring back the jobs that had been lost. There couldn’t be a more perfect messenger to present the opposing view than Mayor Buttigieg. As someone whose entire career has focused on revitalizing post-industrial areas, he explains that “there are a lot of people who think they lost their jobs because of globalization when they actually lost their jobs because of technology.” He rejects the fictional notion that “if we just turn back the clock and get rid of trade, everybody can get their manufacturing jobs back.” As he has demonstrated in northern Indiana, “isolationism, protectionism and nostalgia” don’t fix post-industrial regions. “[N]ew skills and a next generation of products and services” do. More importantly, the Democrats would have a leader with a practical plan for these suffering areas that would stand in stark contrast to the false hope of the Trump administration.
During his speech to TEDx at Notre Dame, the Mayor described a pocketwatch company that thrived in South Bend during the early years of the twentieth century. The discovery of the “trench watch,” created for the new age of soldiers on their way to Europe, utilized a wristband to ensure easier and faster access. The wristwatch overtook the pocketwatch, and by the late 1930’s, the old industry, its employees, and the city itself was confronted with a crisis of technological advancement that displaced thousands of workers.
Buttigieg has focused his efforts on rebranding the city for a new innovative economy that thrives on the future, not on trying to bring back the past. The mayor understands the lessons of South Bend Watch Co. and what it takes to rebuild what has fallen apart. With the clock ticking towards the Trump era, he should be given the opportunity to do the same for the Democratic Party.