Erika D. Smith

The red state savior of the Democratic Party?

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., is getting a lot of attention in his bid to head the Democratic National Committee.
Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., is getting a lot of attention in his bid to head the Democratic National Committee. South Bend Tribune

With a slightly awkward mop of dark hair and an earnestness that can only come from a humble upbringing in the middle of the country, Pete Buttigieg is no ordinary candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee.

He’s a 35-year-old, openly gay mayor from South Bend, Ind. – the fourth-largest city in the same red state that Vice President Mike Pence calls home, but flyover country by California standards. A mystery to “the resistance.”

And yet, Buttigieg is getting a lot of attention. Not to mention endorsements from three former DNC chairs, as well as praise from Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, who told members of The Bee’s editorial board last month: “We need someone who can speak to the entire party.”

Not bad for a guy who entered the race late to lead the beleaguered Democratic Party.

Buttigieg is not as polished as the front-runner Tom Perez, a Labor Department secretary under former President Barack Obama. And he hasn’t held national office like Perez’s closest rival, Keith Ellison, a congressman from Minnesota.

But what the mayor does have going for him – other than boyish charm, which is even more evident in person – is twofold. First, he’s mercifully not aligned with either the establishment wing or the insurgent, Bernie Sanders wing of the party. And second, he really does have some important things to say about rebuilding the party in the Midwest – not that I’m convinced anyone that really matters is listening.

Although that statement he made at last weekend’s DNC forum in Baltimore about the president being a “draft-dodging, chickenhawk” who “thinks he’s too smart to read his own intelligence briefings” made some ears perk up.

But I digress.

When 447 DNC members vote for a new chair later this week in Atlanta, Buttigieg is the candidate who should win. But he won’t. That would make far too much sense.

Instead, I suspect Democrats will elect either Perez or Ellison – probably Perez – and delve headlong into the proxy war that has been brewing for months. Perez has been endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden and California’s superhero on retainer, Eric Holder. Ellison, meanwhile, has the backing of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

It’s not at all dramatic – given the drubbing Democrats got on Election Day and the months of infighting that preceded it – to say the future of the party hinges on this week’s decision. There's even a debate on Wednesday night, hosted by CNN, for the candidates to lay out strategies for the 2018 midterm elections.

But the sour grapes that are sure to follow either Perez or Ellison winning could consume, or at least distract, the DNC leadership, while “the resistance” of average Americans continues to organize by other means.

All important local elections won’t get won. A bench of young politicos won’t get restocked with the necessary gusto.

None of this is a knock on Perez or Ellison. Both men are capable of doing an excellent job as DNC chair. But Buttigieg is right that a lot of what’s to come has as much to do with the message as the messenger.

Remember, the biggest takeaway in the postmortem of the 2016 presidential election was that progressives lost the ability to relate to people, especially white people, in the industrial Midwest. Places like South Bend.

Why elect a chair who doesn’t fully understand that? Because it is nuanced.

Buttigieg talks about finding ways to respect the reasons why so many people voted for Donald Trump. “Where I’m from, they already know he’s not a good guy. They just figured he was our best alternative.” And how Democrats can set about “running and winning in deep red territory.”

But he also talks about the weird way Democrats have tried to figure out where they went wrong on Election Day. “We’ve gone from being ignored,” Buttigieg said of Indiana, “to being studied with a sense of exotic fascination by people on the coasts. To us, it’s just home.”

He’s not perplexed by the seeming contradictions of a gay man being elected twice – the second time with more than 80 percent of the vote – in a state that skews decidedly to the religious right.

Buttigieg is not only gay, he has a partner who is often by his side. He’s an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He’s a Rhodes scholar. And he’s a millennial. In the way only someone from the Midwest can, he’s managed to make peace with all parts.

“What I didn’t do is try to triangulate some ideology that pleased everybody,” he said. “I kept the focus on people’s lives and what I could do for them.”

Until Buttigieg got elected, South Bend was in decline. The city is known as the home of the University of Notre Dame, but in its heyday, it was an auto manufacturing hub for Studebaker. The plant closed 50 years ago and with it went the city’s economy.

Today, thanks to revitalization efforts, people are slowly moving back to South Bend. The ideology of older residents hasn’t changed much, but they’ve come to see the value of voting for some Democrats. Hillary Clinton even eked out a victory in surrounding St. Joseph County.

But in the Midwest, and I’m saying this from experience, progressives have to find a way to coexist with people of different ideologies. With rare exception do the shaming tactics that work so well on the coasts – forced apologies for being racist or homophobic – work in red states. So the search is usually for common ground, not for ways to claim the moral high ground.

Rebuilding the Democratic Party in the Midwest will mean coming to terms with people’s contradictions and working around the reality that change happens slowly, but votes for candidates can follow.

So, yes, I doubt the DNC will hand over the reins of the party to a kid who has never won a statewide elected office. But at the very least, I hope whoever wins has been paying attention to what Buttigieg is saying.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith