MANCHESTER, NH — Among the folk who flocked to possible presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Manchester meet-and-greet Friday night were a woman who’d shaved his name into her hair, a guy with Edgar Allan Poe shoes, a dude playing “Pokemon Go” (the museum is apparently infested with them), at least four state representatives — Matt Wilhelm (who introduced Mayor Pete), Tim Smith, Wendy Thomas, and Heidi Hamer, a lady with purple hair, and two work pals from Boston who had practiced saying Buttigieg’s name (Boot-ej-ej) over and over again so they could confidently ask him to sign their copy of his book, “Shortest Way Home.”
This mass trended younger than crowds at recent similar events, lots of 20- and 30-somethings, eager to hear the message and shake the hand of the Democrat: a 37-year-old Harvard graduate, Rhodes Scholar, openly gay Afghanistan war veteran who is serving his eighth year as mayor of South Bend, Ind. But was Buttigieg the first, amongst the dozens of candidates likely running for U.S President in 2020 (he’s expected to formally announce next weekend in his hometown), to draw an audience that looks demographically (about 22 percent non-white) like the Queen City?
His event Friday night pulled a 300-plus crowd to the Currier Museum of Art. Originally set for the To Share Brewery on Union Street, the could-be candidate’s staff scrambled for a new venue when more than 600 people declared their interest in attending. With two days until showtime, and with a stated capacity of only 300 attendees, the Currier agreed to play host. Buttigieg’s rally was one of the first events of its kind at the museum, and museum staffers say the facility is interested in hosting more for any/either political party.
Buttigieg spoke for about 20 minutes, survived the usual media scrum, then met and chatted with as many of the attendees as he could. Opening his remarks, he shared a story that he said taught him why politics matters. At the time, his father was in chemotherapy, and Buttigieg had just received news that his mother needed emergency heart surgery.
“I had a few things going for me even at that incredibly difficult and vulnerable moment in my life, and one of them was my husband … He could be there, staying with my mother [in the hospital] while I was going out to find my father, because he was a member of our family in the eyes of the law as well as in the eyes of my mother and father … Another thing I had going for me was that people in Washington who had power over our lives made decisions, mostly before I was even born, to bring us something called Medicare. And because they made those choices, that when you reached a certain age America would take care of certain medical issues, the only thing we had to think about as we made those wrenching, difficult decisions was what was right for the family, what was right medically for Mom and Dad. We did not have to think about whether we would be made bankrupt by those medical issues our family was facing, because someone made a choice, and I want every American to have that same benefit.”
Buttigieg’s speech was short on specific initiatives but focused on what he called his three values: freedom, democracy, and security. “You ever see one of those cable shows where the say, ‘the problem with Democrats is that they can’t ever put what they believe on a bumper sticker’?” the mayor said. “Freedom, democracy, security. That’s our bumper sticker.”
The potential candidate explained what he believes falls under those values: freedom to unionize, freedom to start a business without fear of losing health care, freedom of reproductive choice; security from cyber threats, security from white nationalism, security and preparation for the effects of climate change.
“I think a real democracy is one where we have fair districts instead of districts drawn to where politicians get to choose their voters instead of the other way around,” Buttigieg said. “I believe, at risk of sounding simple-minded, that in a democracy, when you’re choosing your leader for your nation, maybe you just total up all the votes and then the person who gets the most wins. If we want to call ourselves a democracy, we can’t go on allowing dollars to out-vote people.”
Buttigieg said he believes Washington, DC, could learn a lot from looking at how cities like Manchester and South Bend are run.
“We didn’t find growth by reversing time,” he said. “We found growth by acknowledging that some things aren’t coming back, but we are and here’s how. And I think that’s what America needs to hear, too.”
He ended his speech with a call for support: “Until we win, not just the election but the period to come and what the next 40 years are going to be like, we got our work cut out for us, so I hope I can count on you.”
Buttigieg, who plays three musical instruments and speaks eight languages, has not officially declared his candidacy. Events such as the one in Manchester last night and Concord today amount to him dipping his toes in the water. However, Buttigieg is rising in the polls and getting a lot of attention from the media. Media turnout at the meet-and-greet had been expected to be light until word got out that 600 people wanted to attend and that the event had been moved to a larger venue.
“I’m mindful that this is a marathon, but we’re certainly thrilled with the way that our message has been resonating these last few weeks,” Buttigieg said.