Mayor Pete is what voters like, but …



Pete Buttigieg was everything people love about him during a brief phone chat on a recent Friday afternoon: friendly, funny, smart and honest. All that the Current Occupant is not.

Pundit Chris Matthews said that voters often look for what the presidential incumbent lacks. That stuck with me as a pretty good rule. Jimmy Carter was a reaction to Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan was loose and confident compared to Carter’s uptight and indecisive.

Buttigieg is a veteran of Afghanistan. He understands what is going on in Syria. He is a Rhodes Scholar. When a South Bend police officer fatally shot a black man armed with a knife, Mayor Buttigieg told the grieving mother that the buck stops with him. He accepted responsibility. Imagine Donald Trump in that situation. Mayor Pete has turned around South Bend, welcomed immigrants and is Midwestern nice.

And he is gay.

That was the conclusion at supper in Iowa City last Wednesday evening, which I shared with a married male gay couple and a woman who hosted me for a speaking engagement. They are connected professionals in the most important Democratic caucus town in Iowa. They say there’s a lot of enthusiasm in Johnson County for Mayor Pete. But he is not at the top of the list, they think.

Probably because he is too young at 37, one friend said.

His husband shook his head.

“He’s gay. Face it.”

They are about 60. They were reared around Iowa. They have put up with it. They acutely remember three Iowa Supreme Court justices being thrown off the bench by voters for ruling that gays cannot be discriminated against as a class. They recognize Bob Vander Plaats is still out there living off that money and firing up the churchy.

They are looking at other candidates.

So there really is a glass ceiling still, or so many think.

Women were tougher on Hillary Clinton than a lot of men. They are tougher on Elizabeth Warren (“Is she electable?” “Doesn’t she lecture?”) or Kamala Harris than they are Joe Biden.

Warren might just shatter the glass with her Rosie the Riveter hammer, given her impressive rise.

African Americans didn’t think a black man could win until he won Iowa.

Buttigieg’s uniqueness is not what farmers were asking him about during a recent bus tour stop in Boone.

“Trump talks tough, that farmers need to take one for the team. They want to know how much longer they have to take one for the team.”

He said the rural climate is “skeptical” of the current administration. Whether it’s ethanol waivers or a trade deal, the attitude is: “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

They would like to know why we couldn’t spend money paying for cover crops instead of a wall at the border, or on a trade war with China.

“They know where Trump’s loyalties are,” Buttigieg said.

He has an ethanol plant in South Bend. It shut down before, but he thinks it’s doing okay right now. It’s another one of the many concerns lodged in his head as he hears about it every day on the trail.

Buttigieg gives Iowans credit for listening to a campaign about reviving fading Rust Belt cities, about international complexities from trade to Syria, and about how agriculture can help lead the world out of a climate crisis.

“I was just in Elkader, a town of 1,200 people with a Republican mayor, and he’s been to Algeria six times. There’s a lot more worldliness in a small community than people realize,” he told me.

He has cited Storm Lake on the trail as a place that brings world cultures together to rejuvenate a rural community.

Mayor Pete leads the field in fundraising. He has more than 100 organizers and 20 field offices, on reputed par with Warren and Biden. His TV ads reflect his good sense and sharp take. He is just behind Warren, Biden and Sanders in the polls. You can always expect someone to shoot from the back in Iowa, often late in the game. Buttigieg is in the best position to do that. Those people in Boone might win over the skeptics in Iowa City who have had to live it their whole lives. You would like to think.

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