As an out Midwestern mayor whose résumé boasts both a Harvard diploma and a deployment to Afghanistan, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg had no problem gaining the notice of LGBT politicos. After making history as the first gay candidate to qualify for a major-party primary debate, however, he has won their full attention.
By crossing the 65,000-donor threshold imposed by the Democratic National Committee for candidates who hope to participate in the first two primary debates, Buttigieg crashed through what one gay Democratic coordinator called the “rainbow ceiling,” and his campaign is actively courting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Democrats to join his growing base of support. But with a primary field as expansive—and almost uniformly pro-LGBT—as the party’s crop of 2020 hopefuls, LGBT political movers and shakers told The Daily Beast that Buttigieg has to do more than win a spot on the main stage to start earning their formal support.
“We are blessed on the Democratic side with a plethora of candidates that are great on our issues, and have a great history on our issues,” said Rod Townsend, president of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, who called issues like supporting marriage equality, non-discrimination legislation and LGBT military enlistment “a given in Democratic circles.”
“It’s not 2008, it’s not 2012, where it’s, ‘oh, you support marriage equality,’” Townsend said, which makes the hurdle for potential endorsement from the nation’s largest LGBT Democratic organizations a lot higher.
“We want him to show that he deserves to be in the arena, and have no doubt that he will,” said Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund and herself an out former mayor. “We’re excited about his candidacy—it’s clear that he’s ready for primetime.”
So far, Buttigieg’s message has placed a stronger emphasis on his generation than on his orientation, emphasizing college affordability, increased economic equality, and action on fighting climate change on the campaign trail.
“Pete’s not a ‘gay candidate for president’—he’s a candidate for president, and part of what he brings to the table is his life experience as a gay man,” Parker said.
The strategy is politically savvy—millennials, of whom 37-year-old Buttigieg is one, became the nation’s largest voting-age cohort last year, and his average Democratic opponent is almost 65 years old, if you include former vice president Joe Biden. But the millennial-geared pitch doesn’t mean that “Mayor Pete,” as almost all of his supporters call him, isn’t making direct overtures to LGBT voters a key part of his campaign strategy.
“We’re very conscious of the historic nature of this effort, and I am committed to including and standing up for fellow members of the LGBTQ community, knowing that there is still a struggle for equality underway in our country today,” Buttigieg told The Daily Beast.
Since forming his exploratory committee on Jan. 23, Buttigieg’s campaign has organized large-scale outreach to LGBT organizations nationwide. The day after announcing, Buttigieg made a surprise appearance at a Human Rights Campaign happy hour, making casual remarks to employees of the country’s largest LGBT advocacy group about his own journey as a gay man in northern Indiana.
“He talked about how much the world has evolved and become more supportive of equality, and how it is such a new day” for LGBT Americans, said JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs at HRC. The remarks, Winterhof said, were “very resonant with the folks who were there that day.”
Buttigieg’s campaign has also pursued extensive exposure in LGBT media outlets both big and small, as well as major appearances before deep-pocketed donors in the community. One gathering in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood on Friday, though not billed as specific to gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans supporters, has already sold out to a largely LGBT crowd, according to its organizers. The mayor will also keynote the Victory Fund’s annual brunch next month, and plans on making a big showing at this summer’s Pride events, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
“He has begun his campaign on a solid foot, and he is off to a good start,” Winterhof said, “in part because he is reaching out to LGBTQ people.”
In turn, groups like the Victory Fund have used their expansive donor and volunteer networks to help the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, compete on the main stage.
“When he announced that he was closing in on his 65,000 donors, we put it out on our network, and encouraged people to help get him over the finish line,” Parker said. “Our candidates compete head-to-head in these races based on their qualifications and credentials, and we’re going to expect nothing less from Pete.”
With a brighter spotlight than any gay presidential candidate has held before, LGBT political organizers are impressed by what Buttigieg has accomplished thus far—even those from the other side of the aisle.
“I’m always a fan of grassroots, I’m always a fan of somebody who comes up through the ranks,” Jerri Ann Henry, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, told The Daily Beast. “Those are all good things—that’s impressive. Even though I disagree with him, I like seeing this kind of movement.”
Asked whether Buttigieg’s positive first impression can translate into a mobilization of some of the most devoted Democratic organizations into endorsing him, however, advocates told The Daily Beast that the approach is still wait-and-see.
“It’s hard to see how we would pick one over another in this field,” Winterhof said, “which means we want to really make sure our members are engaging in this process.” The HRC has three million members and supporters, and its leadership will be listening closely to them as the Democratic primaries build momentum.
“We are going to look for opportunities to get these various folks in front of our people,” Winterhof said. “We have dinners, we have receptions, we have gatherings, we have lunches… and we want the presidentials in front of as many of our members and supporters as possible.”
Even Victory Fund, which exclusively endorses LGBT candidates for office, is leaving plenty of runway before its promised official endorsement of Buttigieg’s candidacy. There are still candidates running for office this year to focus on, Parker said, but added that enthusiasm for the mayor’s run lifts all boats.
“We hope that Pete wins, we’d all be excited about it, but the fact of his candidacy, the way he’s conducting himself, universally from folks within our community and folks outside who had never heard of this guy from South Bend with a funny name... they say, ‘wow, he’s smart, he’s thoughtful, he has good ideas, I’m glad he’s running,’” Parker said. “Doesn’t mean that they’re going to vote for him and support him, but that fact is nothing but good for our community.”
One gay candidate for office in Buttigieg’s home state said that the positive national reception of the mayor’s campaign is major inspiration for LGBT candidates, who recognize that they often have to work twice as hard to get half as far.
“Stonewall members are incredibly proud to have him stepping up,” said Josh Peters, president emeritus of the Indiana Stonewall Democrats, who told The Daily Beast that Buttigieg’s run holds particular resonance for LGBT people in red states, who often feel that their concerns take a backseat to gays in big coastal cities.
“When he came out during his second mayoral campaign, it was really really great to see somebody from our community in Indiana, an elected official, stepping out of the closet and proclaiming his truth, despite some of the perceptions of what politics in Indiana is like,” Peters said. “Everybody in Indiana loves an underdog—we grew up watching Rudy and Hoosiers. It’s almost what it means to be a Hoosier, to root for the underdog.”
Peters, who is himself running to be the first out gay county commissioner in Indiana history, said that the high standards LGBT groups are holding for Buttigieg’s candidacy are important for both gay candidates and for the Democratic Party, especially with such a diverse field of pro-LGBT candidates.
“Members of our community know that they have to work even harder,” Peters said. “Mayor Pete is only a couple years older than I am, and I see hope in his candidacy, and an example in his confidence.”
Townsend, who grew up in Indiana, said that even having Buttigieg on a debate stage alongside some of the most high-profile politicians in the country will feel like a victory.
“Never in my mind would I have imagined, as a kid, seeing an LGBT candidate on the debate stage for president,” Townsend said. “That kid in me, who couldn’t have imagined it and is now seeing it, is awestruck. I want that opportunity for gay kids across the United States to see that candidate on the stage, and see the potential for them to be up there exists, and that they matter.”