Shortly after Pete Buttigieg took to the stage at Buford’s Backyard Beer Garden in downtown Austin, I heard a loud thud from off to my right. A small circle of people crowded around a woman lying passed out on the ground.
‘She went down like a felled tree,’ remarked a journalist next to me. Up front, Buttigieg was in full flow listing America’s many woes that need sorting. People crouched down to help — ‘Give her space!’
With sweat beading on my brow along with 750 others gathered that sweltering Saturday evening, and my eyes flitting between an animated Buttigieg and the mini crisis unfolding around that stricken woman, this drama of bifurcated tension felt like it spoke to the country’s perilous state and heightened emotions. Not that the 37-year-old Buttigieg seems daunted by the circumstances. Sharp in a starched white shirt, and carrying off wearing a tie in that heat, this guy is clearly a cool operator. Like his nicely cropped hair, he never loses his assured poise.
I came to my first Democratic candidate rally out of curiosity, bringing my camera and notebook to enable me to enter as media and avoid the three-block-long line outside. But Mayor Pete, as he is known, soon engaged me with his energetic performance that was, in stark contrast to the approaches of many other politicians, strikingly upbeat and empathetic. He also has a knack for giving constructive criticism without sounding snarky or like he is just scoring points. It’s winningly effective, and it’s very hard not to warm to his nature, style and wit.
‘Democrats, God bless us, sometimes we overthink things, right?’ he told the crowd. ‘And there’s a risk that we will try to play it safe to win and end up losing.’
Hence, he explained, if Democrats are to win then voters need to see ‘we’re going to do something completely different’. Buttigieg is certainly that. He would be the first openly gay person to serve as president or be a major party nominee — which he didn’t even touch on — and he’s certainly different in staying refreshingly positive and above the mudslinging.
Austin mayor Steve Adler, who introduced Buttigieg with a generous serving of praise and, near the end, read audience questions to the candidate, said he’d been to many political rallies before, but never to one where the candidate ‘insisted on taking questions’.
Buttigieg also knows, unlike most politicians, how to quote Scripture effectively and without sounding priggish. It’s a handy skill. Apart from demonstrating his self-assuredness and lack of pretension, there’s plenty of catchy Biblical lines that can be harnessed to critique, as Buttigieg did that evening, the president’s amorality.
A couple at the rally remembered seeing Buttigieg talk at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in March. ‘There were about 20 people in the audience — I only came because my wife said, “You should check this guy out,”‘ the 36-year-old man told me. ‘I didn’t know what to expect, and I was blown away that first time. He’s so intelligent, thoughtful and well-spoken to any question he gets.’
The man said he hasn’t decided who he will vote for — he also likes Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke — but his wife said she’s ‘set on Pete’. Working in local government herself, she likes how Buttigieg’s mayoral experience means he knows how to get things done on a day-to-day basis, and understands how policies can trickle down to affect everyone.
From where I was standing, it was his thought-provoking rhetoric winning me over.
‘We’re lucky and unlucky enough to be living in one of those moments that sets the tone for what the next half century is going to look like,’ Buttigieg proclaimed, as I could feel my ardor rising. When he announced, ‘It is up to us,’ I had to suppress a lusty ‘Yes!’
But all this enthusiasm and energy was tempered by my final conversation with two African Americans. I wanted to hear their thoughts on claims Buttigieg has a problem appealing to African American voters due to his complicated history with the police and the black community in his city.
They explained they had just arrived to get pizza and had absolutely no interest in the election and no intention of voting for anyone. The 37-year-old man said he had never voted. The 30-year-old woman said she hadn’t since once doing so for President Obama.
‘It’s pointless, the Republicans and Democrats are just separate wings of the same bird,’ the woman said.
I tried to joke that they were too young to be so cynical, but they didn’t seem persuaded. It was a rough reminder that some Americans have checked out of the democratic process, with all the implications that entails for the likes of Buttigieg and The Republic.