BERLIN, New Hampshire—At least a dozen times over the course of his four-day bus tour across New Hampshire last weekend, Mayor Pete Buttigieg described America as caught in the throes of a “crisis of belonging,” brought on by decades of economic, social, and civic isolation in communities across the country.
Buttigieg’s proposed solution to that crisis: a massive federal cash injection for jobs training, cutting restrictions on treating drug addiction as an illness instead of as a crime, and an $80 billion “Internet for All” program to expand access to broadband internet.
Also, whitewater rafting and microbreweries. Lots of microbreweries.
“Every community is different, but I know what’s it like to have people question whether our community had a future,” Buttigieg told the audience at a town hall in this small North Country town. “The spirit of a community giving itself permission to believe in its own future is the spirit that we need right now in our country—and it’s the spirit that I seek to bring into the White House.”
Few places might be feeling the symptoms of that crisis more acutely than the town of Berlin, once the epicenter of New Hampshire’s thriving paper industry. Nearly 15 years after the pulp mill in this small North Country town closed its doors for the last time, the town’s population is shrinking, a 41-acre Superfund site occasionally contaminates the Androscoggin River with mercury, and local schools battle one of the worst heroin abuse problems in the state.
“Despite it all, I remember the sense of community, hope and belonging in Berlin,” said Victoria Stowell, an organizer for the campaign who delivered opening remarks at Berlin City Hall on Saturday. “Pete shares those same beliefs. His hometown suffered things a lot like Berlin, and he came back and he ran to be mayor because he saw that his community was being left behind.”
At this point, nearly everyone attending one of Buttigieg’s increasingly packed campaign events knows the broad contours of his biography—he grew up in the post-industrial Midwest, from which he swiftly departed after winning a succession of golden tickets with admission to Harvard University, a Rhodes Scholarship and a job at McKinsey & Company, and then returned to be elected the mayor of his hometown, come out as gay and become an unlikely frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“What I saw in our community was the potential for a lot of growth in not just a kind of numbers level, but the kinds of places you want to spend time,” Buttigieg told The Daily Beast aboard his campaign bus. “The arrival of microbreweries, for example, in South Bend was a very good sign.”
For coastal, college-educated expatriates of small-town America—also known as Buttigieg’s base—that decision to return home might seem inexplicable. They fled tedium, isolation and small-town homophobia for a reason, after all; and the new availability of elevated pub fare, extreme sports courses and craft IPAs can’t undo decades of municipal neglect.
But over the course of his bus tour across New Hampshire, Buttigieg made the case that saving small towns hollowed out by industrial decline, the opioid crisis and brain drain is of critical importance to solving that “crisis of belonging”—and could play a major role in helping to restore Democratic political power in rural America.
“I think we've underestimated how much value there could be in folks returning to sometimes lower-income and lower-cost parts of the country,” Buttigieg told The Daily Beast aboard his as-yet-unnamed campaign bus (embedded reporters alternate between calling it the “ButtiBus” and “Bus-Edge-Edge) after a campaign stop in North Hampton. “Small and mid-sized communities, whether it’s rural communities here or the industrial Midwest, really need to cultivate that.”
The bus tour visited numerous towns that had been devastated by young people taking stock of their surroundings—a vanishingly small job market, an even teenier dating pool, and not a single Chipotle north of Concord—and splitting for the big city. As Buttigieg noted in the economic agenda released to coincide with the trip, two-thirds of students who leave New Hampshire for college never return.
Buttigieg’s economic plans place a big bet on the restorative power of investing in small-town America—the idea that with the right combination of enough decent jobs and enough revitalized waterfronts, young people can be lured back home from expensive and uncomfortable cities.
The proposals include investing billions in workforce training for local-nonprofits, unions, small businesses and community colleges, as well as direct as much as $5 billion toward expanding apprenticeship programs to make them available within 30 miles of every American. The plan would also create a $200 billion fund for worker training and transition services for workers displaced by industrial and technological developments, and would allocate $80 billion for expanding high-speed broadband internet to underserved communities.
“A lot of people are in jobs that you can do from more and more different places—if you have broadband everywhere, right?” Buttigieg said.
At stop after stop, dressed in his standard uniform of “Guy On the Dance Floor At A Wedding Reception,” Buttigieg returned to his own experiences as native son-turned-mayor of South Bend, Indiana, another city that people wrote off as dead in the water following the closure of the Studebaker automotive plant in the 1960s.
“Reminds me of home,” Buttigieg told Marty Parichand, owner of sporting goods store Outdoor New England, as he surveyed plans for a whitewater park similar in Franklin. The city, which ranks No. 1 in the state for poverty and No. 2 for the concentration of lead paint, sees the proposed Mill City Park as a lifeline, Parichand said, adding that the plan, which relies on $2.5 million in grants to create a park along the Winnipesaukee River, could mean “the beginning of our downtown.”
“I think in some places, you know, with 40 years of decay or trouble, it’s harder for people to believe in an identity or path forward,” Parichand told Buttigieg hopefully. “But I think here, we’re making progress.”
After another stop at the Throwback Brewery in North Hampton, a female-owned-and-founded brewery/restaurant that raises its own pigs, makes its own cheese, and builds its own tables with power supplied by a solar array on its roof—for all of these reasons, it’s a very popular campaign stop—Buttigieg told The Daily Beast that such businesses are proof that small-town New Hampshire can attract educated young people invested in their new home’s success.
But like in South Bend, he said, large-scale “brain gain” in those cities and towns will rely on more than just creating economic opportunity.
“An easy way to score points as a mayor is to land the big, the big factory, right? And it’ll lead to a lot of what's been called smokestack chasing, where you wind up bidding against yourself, incentives that turn into a kind of race to the bottom,” Buttigieg told reporters on his bus as it traveled from a barn party in Stratham to a town hall in Salem. “If you have a healthy downtown, if you have things to do, if you have good places to eat, if you have breweries, more and more people will want to head your way,” Buttigieg said. “And I think that’s usually more effective than trying to land anything.”
Twentysomething attendees of Buttigieg’s campaign events echoed the sentiment that bringing young people back to small-town America was more than a question of dollars and cents.
“I really like my company, but I don't know, I don't see a very high probability,” said Stephen, who works for a biotech company in Lebanon and does not anticipate returning after he leaves for graduate school. “There’s not much to do around here… There’s not a city life, you know, there’s not that many bars, not really a social scene in town. It’s also freezing.”
“I think it depends on the age. Thirties, forties, you tend to stay, particularly if you have family here,” echoed Xiaofeng Wang, an assistant professor of molecular and systems biology at Dartmouth College. “For young people, it is hard to attract them to stay.”
Is solving the decimation of rural America as simple as investing in enough organic farms and bike paths to put Portland to blushing shame? Maybe, according to Buttigieg, who told The Daily Beast that he made just such a calculation before returning to South Bend.
“We still had to make sure there was a ‘there’ there—we had to make sure that there were good parks and a sense of place, both in the downtown and in safe neighborhoods,” Buttigieg said. “Even though it wasn’t all there at the beginning of the decade, I saw enough that I knew I could be happy there, especially if I was also involved in a deep way in helping to shape the city, which you get to do in public service.”
Granted, South Bend under Buttigieg’s leadership has not been without its civic tensions, whitewater rapid course or no whitewater rapid course. His “1,000 houses in 1,000 days” policy of either bulldozing or repairing hundreds of derelict houses in the city—the result, he says, of door-to-door canvassing during his mayoral campaign that revealed abandoned houses to be a top issue among voters—troubled black and Latino residents concerned about gentrification. And the city’s new smart sewers, of which Buttigieg is particularly proud—“I could do a whole book on wastewater,” Buttigieg told reporters at one point, prompting communications director Lis Smith to stage-mutter “oh my God”—aren’t as nationally prominent as the city’s police department, and its persistent problems with racism.
“South Bend’s had a ton of challenges—I mean, we have since the ’60s—in terms of just the sense of the community being livable and growing,” Buttigieg said. But a culture of civic renewal, he added, has benefits that aren’t always visible, mentioning one constituent who has a street map of South Bend’s Westside neighborhood tattooed on his arm.
The potential partnership between generations to revitalize hollowed-out towns and cities is critical to national recovery, Buttigieg said—particularly as issues like gun control and climate change increase resentment from millennial and Gen Z voters towards their elders.
“Good leadership is negotiating among all kinds of cohorts that have justifiable frustration toward each other,” Buttigieg said, after The Daily Beast explained the “ok boomer” meme as an indicator of rising generational tensions. “Of course, there are going to be these frustrations… but the idea is to really make the most that you can out of the areas where there’s common feeling, knowing that there should be enough to what it is to be American that it’s kind of giving us the glue even across those kinds of divides.”
That unlikely intergenerational partnership in rural America could also represent a huge strategic win for Democrats, whose electoral losses in rural America could represent a major problem for Senate control down the road.
“I think there's a lot of opportunity in areas that are more rural, less dense and accordingly tend to be more politically conservative, to have more folks out there to bring political balance,” Buttigieg said. Although that balance isn’t the goal of growing communities in rural America, he added, Buttigieg maintained that helping people with broadened horizons and diverse life experiences return to their rural hometowns is healthy for civic life.
Alex Poulsen, an attendee at the Berlin event who grew up in rural California and now lives in Boston, said that he could see Buttigieg’s message resonating with people who left their hometowns not because they were unhappy, but because they felt like they had no options left.
“So many Trump voters feel like they were left behind by the country and they’re, like, rural voters,” Poulsen said. “And so I think this message of the rural communities would really maybe resonate with a lot of the Trump voters.”
“I like especially that he’s talking about, like, we need good education and cultural opportunities, not just for jobs but just so your quality of life is elevated,” echoed companion Katie Stevenson, who grew up in a small town in Virginia and worked as a missionary in rural Nevada. “I don’t hear anyone else talking about that. So I think that’s a really powerful message.”
More immediately, however, Buttigieg’s emphasis on rebuilding small towns with grants, training programs and craft beer has been a boon to a candidate who less than a year ago had no national political profile—particularly in communities where they’ve already tried everything else.
“In many ways, Berlin is a lot like South Bend,” said Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, who introduced Buttigieg on Saturday. “It’s taken a lot of work, creativity and unconventional ideas, but we’re going to keep moving forward. We’ve got a lot of work still to do, but we never gave up on our city.”