Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg’s campaign re-launch comes amid a surge of news placing the mayor of 102,000-person South Bend in the upper echelons of the Democratic presidential primary. | Darron Cummings/AP Photo

2020 Elections

The mayor of South Bend has gained prominence since starting an exploratory committee in January.

Updated

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Surging in early primary polls, Democrat Pete Buttigieg officially kicked off his presidential bid on Sunday, starting a new phase of the campaign as one of the main candidates to watch just three months after he launched an exploratory committee to little fanfare.

The South Bend mayor said it was time for the country to plot a new course before a crowd of supporters packed into the Studebaker 84 Building, a recently repurposed former car assembly plant, on a rainy Sunday afternoon in his hometown.

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“It’s time to walk away from the politics of the past, and toward something totally different. So that’s why I’m here today, joining you to make a little news My name is Pete Buttigieg,” he said. “They call me Mayor Pete. I am a proud son of South Bend, Indiana. And I am running for President of the United States.”

Buttigieg, 37, framed his candidacy around his background as someone who was born and served as the mayor of a mid-sized Midwestern town that went through an economic and technological renaissance. He contrasted that with President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again message and his promises to bring back old business to the region.

“I ran for mayor in 2011 knowing that nothing like Studebaker would ever come back — but believing that we would, our city would, if we had the courage to reimagine our future. And now, I can confidently say that South Bend is back. More people are moving into South Bend than we’ve seen in a generation.

“Thousands of new jobs have been added in our area, and billions in investment. There’s a long way for us to go. Life here is far from perfect. But we’ve changed our trajectory, and shown a path forward for communities like ours. And that’s why I’m here today. To tell a different story than ‘Make America Great Again.’ Because there is a myth being sold to industrial and rural communities: the myth that we can stop the clock and turn it back.”

Buttigieg’s campaign re-launch comes amid a surge of news placing the mayor of 102,000-person South Bend in the upper echelons of the Democratic presidential primary. He raised $7 million in the first quarter — fourth among candidates who have announced their fundraising so far — largely from a swell of small-dollar donors. Buttigieg, who is openly gay, has gained notice for his criticism of Vice President Mike Pence, the former Indiana governor and an opponent of same-sex marriage.

And recent surveys of Democrats in early 2020 states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina show Buttigieg jumping into the pack vying for third place behind the early polling front-runners, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Buttigieg, who served as an Naval intelligence officer, said his campaign would focus on freedom and national security, arguing that that included climate change, health care, and immigration fall under that rubric.

“The principles that will guide my campaign are simple enough to fit on a bumper sticker: freedom, security, and democracy,” Buttigieg said. Later in the speech, the South Bend mayor said: “Health care is freedom, because you’re not free if you can’t start a small business because leaving your job would mean losing your health care.”

But Buttigieg faces a tough climb to the Democratic presidential nomination: No one has ever jumped from a city hall to the White House, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani won only a single delegate in 2008 despite spending much of the preceding year leading Republican primary polls. Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Fla., has also joined Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic primary, and current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio may jump in as well.

Still, Buttigieg has hoped to leverage his connections to mayors across the country. Openers for his speech included Austin (Texas) Mayor Steve Adler, West Sacramento (Calif.) Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, and Dayton (Ohio) Mayor Nan Whaley, all of whom argued that American mayors have a unique connection to voters.

“Politics in cities is the politics of every day life,” Adler said in his speech. “In cities political issues are not abstract ideas, it is the stuff that hits home.”

In a bid to maintain the momentum — and avoid becoming the latest in a line of long-shot presidential candidates who faded after a brief moment of prominence — Buttigieg has moved to expand his campaign team at his South Bend headquarters and in the early primary states, as well as in a small outpost in Chicago, where a handful of staffers are based to take advantage of talent and fundraising potential in the city.

Buttigieg is scheduled to headline a fundraiser in Chicago on April 23. (He will also travel to Iowa later this week.)

Buttigieg noted that his age and his resume — compared to other Democratic presidential candidates who have won statewide races — were unconventional.

“I recognize the audacity of doing this as a Midwestern millennial mayor. More than a little bold — at age 37 — to seek the highest office in the land. Up until recently, this was not exactly what I had in mind either, for how to spend my eighth year as mayor and my 38th year in this world. But the moment we live in compels us to act,” Buttigieg said.

“The forces of change in our country today are tectonic. Forces that help to explain what made this current presidency even possible. That’s why, this time, it’s not just about winning an election — it’s about winning an era. Not just about the next four years — it’s about preparing our country for a better life in 2030, in 2040, and in the year 2054, when, God willing, I will come to be the same age as our current President.”

Buttigieg finished his speech saying: “It’s cold out, but we’ve had it with winter. You and I have the chance to usher in a new American spring.”

His husband, Chasten, then joined the mayor on the stage and the two waved to the crowd.