“We’ve got to fight fire with fire”: DNC Chair Candidate Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a candidate for DNC Chair. Buttigieg was a Rhodes Scholar, served in the military, and has been called the potential first gay president. Prior to becoming mayor, Buttigieg worked at McKinsey & Company. Buttigieg is the youngest mayor of a city with over one hundred thousand residents, and the Washington Post named him “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of. The Gate interviewed Buttigieg at the third DNC Future Forum in Detroit, Michigan.

The Gate: What is the biggest thing that sets you apart from the other candidates here today?

Pete Buttigieg: The theme of our campaign has been “everybody needs a fresh start.” The answers aren’t going to come from Washington, so everybody’s saying that we’ve got to get back to the states and to local organizing. The case for me is that that’s what I do. I love to go fishing. I’m from the middle of the country. I’m from an area and a part of the electorate that we’ve had trouble connecting with.

Gate: You were actually the only candidate for DNC chair to attend any leg of the Women’s March. Why did you choose to do that and what do you think that means for your platform?

Buttigieg: There was a scheduling decision to make that day because there was a big retreat of donors in Florida. Then there was the Women’s March going on and we thought about it and decided we’ve got to be at the Women’s March. I mean there was energy materializing. We didn’t realize how big a deal it would be until we were there. What was especially compelling to me was that even in South Bend, even in Indiana, we had thousands of people out. So it showed that there is something happening that is bigger than the Democratic Party. Frankly, Democratic officials were playing catch-up on it. They were trying to harness some of that energy after the fact. That was when I began to realize that the Democratic Party needs to figure out how it fits in the landscape of movement organizations, not the other way around.

The other thing I really loved about the Women’s March was not just the scale of it, which was impressive, but the style of it. That was where I really started to hit on this idea of the happy warrior. Yeah, we’re defending our values and we’re strong in it, we’re fierce, we’re fighting back. But it’s also cheerful. It had as much to do with supporting each other as it did stopping the others. I think that’s really important for creating movement that’s going to last for people who are working hard.

Gate: In the last election cycle the Democrats did a great job at raising money and that didn’t actually turn into a win, so if you were DNC chair, would you change the focus on fundraising?

Buttigieg: Resources are always going to matter, but we’ve got to figure out where we’re putting them. If you’re just dumping it all onto the airwaves, you may not be capturing the kind of energy that you could if you were using that on grassroots organizing, really getting people out there, connecting to other human beings. That also shows that money is not enough. If you don’t have a winning message, if you don’t have winning candidates, and if you don’t have a strong organizational framework, money is not going to save you.

Gate: When you were in high school, you won an essay contest for a piece in which you praised Bernie Sanders for really sticking to his values when a lot of other Democrats were kind of going towards the center. Is this the kind of logic you apply to the Democratic Party today?

Buttigieg: I think it’s very important that we organize around the values that make us Democrats. We’re a big ten party. We’re going to have ideological diversity within our ranks. That’s OK. But we’ve always got to have that touchstone why we’re Democrats in the first place. If we lose touch with that, people will think we’re running for these offices just so we can have them and that’s not a compelling message.

Gate: If you were the DNC chair now, what would you advise all of the Senate Democrats to do in terms of Trump’s cabinet picks and confirmation?

Buttigieg: Well, I think we’ve got to fight fire with fire. You know, we can say “turnabout is fair play,” and we’re going to treat them with the same fairness that they showed to our folks. We’ve tried working for a middle ground with these congressional Republicans and what we learned was they were acting in bad faith. When you’re confronting a bad-faith actor, it’s a different chessboard than if you had people who were sincerely advocating competing values.

Gate: What are the new strategies that you would hope the Democrats would then apply in 2018 or 2020?

Buttigieg: Well, some of it is getting back to the basics and what’s always worked: making sure that we don’t short grassroots organizing or the importance of showing up everywhere. Some of the newer things include driving innovation from the DNC in areas like digital and media communications, where we’ve really relied on the vendors to do the innovating. I think the DNC needs to use its purchasing power to drive innovative solutions. Have different teams competing against each other to see what the best ideas are that emerge and then, when the best ideas do emerge, then you scale them. That’s a big part of how we’ve driven innovation in South Bend and I’d like to do the same thing in the party.

Gate: We’re seeing a lot of really strong anti-Trump rhetoric, as you mentioned. What do you think are the best methodologies to turn that into actual wins for the Democrats?

Buttigieg: I think we need to balance our anti-Trump rhetoric and our calling out many falsehoods or outrages that come from the White House on a daily basis with talking about people in their everyday lives. If all we talk about is him, they’re going to say, “Who’s talking about me?” So, we have to make sure that whenever there’s something that happens in politics or in government, we always discuss it in terms of how it gets cashed out in people’s everyday lived experience. That’s why all this matters in the first place. It’s why we have politics.

We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball here. The anti-Trump stuff writes itself, and that stuff, in many ways, is more obvious than making sure we have a positive agenda and making sure that we are weighting our agenda to what people care about most, which is their families, their kitchen table, and what’s happening to them.

Gate: When you visited the Institute of Politics this fall, you said that you won the first election as mayor, and then had to sit down at your desk at nine o’clock the first day and you say, “OK. What’s the first thing that I’m going to do this morning?” If you sit at that DNC chair desk, wherever that might be, what’s your day one agenda?

Buttigieg: First thing you do is you pick up the phone and you talk to people who have succeeded in different kinds of environments and won elections. Then you find out how they did it. I also will be picking up the phone to talk to the different states—and actually, I will be not just calling from behind the desk, I’ll be visiting every one of the fifty-seven states and territories, because we need to make sure that DNCs are resources; not just in the sense of pushing out resources to the states or pushing out money or sending out bodies, but do we have an authentic understanding of what the different states’ game plans are? The DNC needs to be able to flex its plan in order to support all of these substantially different plans in the different states.

The other thing we’ve got to do is just take a look at the governance of the organization. It’s been run a certain way for a long time and as when I took office in South Bend, sometimes you hear, “Well, we do it this way because we’ve always done it that way.” Anytime I hear that, I want to interrogate that statement.

Gate: More on the local level in terms of combating Trump’s rhetoric and his policies, you implemented a municipal ID program in South Bend. Detroit has done that, Washtenaw has done that. What are some more things like that that you think local officials can do to kind of combat the federal administration?

Buttigieg: I think, if anything, we’re neglecting what local officials can do. In a local environment, they generally get to get on television without even having to ask. Legislators or party officials have to sort of pitch or campaign to have access to the media, so we need to make sure there’s a shared message among our local officials, too. From a policy perspective, there are a lot of things we can do, whether it’s standing up to the [Trump] administration on its immigration policies, or going out and implementing our own policies on things like a common construction wage when often the state or Washington is trying to crush labor. There are a lot of things we can do just to make sure the relationships form among people who are being told by this White House that they ought to hate each other.

Gate: What would you say is the main purpose or most important task for the DNC chair?

Buttigieg: I think the most important task is it’s an organization. There’s a temptation to treat it like a policy job or as if you’re running for office, but it’s really not that. It’s about organizing. Everybody says, “Organize, organize, organize.” There’s a little less thought about what that actually means. The metaphor that I would use is kind of like conducting. You may not be playing an instrument but you’re calling the tune and you’re setting the tone and then you’re empowering everybody to do what they do best. You’re providing the coordination; they’re providing the actual energy and the skill and the talent on the instrument they’re using, but it’s you conducting that it turns into a symphony.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

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