WEST SACRAMENTO — As Pete Buttigieg works to prove the leader of a city of roughly 100,000 people is ready to assume the American presidency, he’s relying on help from politicians who would know best: his fellow mayors.
The South Bend, Indiana, mayor has amassed a network of roughly 60 “Mayors for Pete,” a collection of local leaders pushing for his underdog bid. The group includes mayors from former industrial cities, thriving metros and tiny towns of just a few thousand people. It includes the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, a Rust Belt city like the one Buttigieg leads, and the mayor of West Sacramento, California, a rising progressive leader. About a third are from swing states Democrats need to win to take the White House. But just three are from the early voting states Buttigieg needs to win to become Democrats’ presidential nominee.
The campaign believes the mayors bring credibility to the 37-year-old Buttigieg’s chief pitch — a promise to usher in the next generation of Democratic politics and a more pragmatic, no-excuses style of governing.
“He’s a mayor, which means that unlike a lot of people who are running for that office, he’s in a place where he actually has to get things done,” said Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, Texas, who endorsed Buttigieg in April, passing over Beto O’Rourke, a home state candidate.
But Buttigieg’s list also highlights one of his chief weaknesses in the Democratic primary. Adler aside, the group is short on mayors who represent America’s largest cities, and on city leaders who aren’t white. It’s an omission that reflects Buttigieg’s trouble winning over black voters, a critical group of the Democratic primary electorate, amid criticism of his handling of the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer in South Bend.
Meanwhile, some of his competitors have picked up big names: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan are backing Joe Biden. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney just endorsed Elizabeth Warren.
Campaign Hopes List of Mayors Will Grow as Field Thins
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who flirted with a presidential run himself, has not yet offered an endorsement, nor has Lori Lightfoot, Chicago’s first black and LGBT mayor and a rising Democratic star. Many mayors of majority black cities in the South still haven’t endorsed anyone.
Senior Buttigieg campaign adviser Jess O’Connell said that winning support from mayors is just a piece of the campaign’s overall strategy for capturing the nomination and that she hopes the list of mayors will grow as the Democratic field winnows to fewer candidates.
“For now, what we most want are people that know Mayor Pete and understand his style,” she said. “But we know we have more to do to earn everybody’s endorsement.”
Adrian Perkins of Shreveport, Louisiana, is one of the mayors who hasn’t yet committed. Perkins went to Harvard Law School and served in the military like Buttigieg; the two connected through a friend when Perkins, 33, was still in school and Buttigieg took time to offer him advice.
But Perkins said his endorsement must be the best choice for his city, a majority black community experiencing major floods that he attributes to climate change. Perkins, who is black, acknowledged that Buttigieg has a perception problem with some black voters, but he said that could change if people get to know him.
“It would go a long way for Pete … on coming here and me putting him in front of some of the African Americans in my community, so they can see who I see in him,” he said.
Mayors More Closely Connected to Voters Than Most Politicians
Buttigieg has already won over Sly James, the former mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, and former head of the African American Mayors Association, and Michelle De La Isla, the first Latina mayor of Topeka, Kansas. Christropher Cabaldon, of West Sacramento, is Filipino, part of the West’s growing Asian-Pacific Islander community.
While smaller-city mayors may not seem like coveted presidential endorsements, they are more closely connected to voters than most politicians and are responsible for functions of government that often have a more direct impact on voters’ lives.
“I think that right now you see a complete breakdown of state and federal politics, and the only place you see governing happening and stuff getting done is at the local level,” said Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio.
Whaley, Adler and Cabaldon met Buttigieg through the U.S Conference of Mayors and developed friendships. Cabaldon, who came out as gay in 2006 while serving as mayor, sought Buttigieg out at the conference in 2015, after Buttigieg came out, to offer support. Three years later, he was a guest at Buttigieg’s wedding to husband Chasten.
All three spoke at Buttigieg’s campaign launch in April, where the effort to win support from other mayors began.
As impeachment battles consume Washington, Cabaldon said, Buttigieg can provide an alternative focused on actual governance, not partisan bickering.
“We don’t fight to the death in local government,” he said.
Mayors Connect Regularly with Buttigieg Campaign
The mayors have a call every other week with a campaign staffer dedicated to working with mayors, where they toss around policy ideas, discuss Buttigieg’s upcoming schedule and connect the campaign with interested people, Whaley said.
O’Connell, the senior campaign adviser, said the campaign has drawn from various cities to build out its policy proposals.
Whaley said she’s helped at least three Ohio mayors who aren’t backing Buttigieg connect local donors or activists with the campaign. Adler has set up fundraisers and facilitated community meetings, including with Austin’s black and Hispanic communities.
“Mayors know the leadership of every one of their communities,” Whaley said.
Buttigieg won the endorsement of Victory Fund, a group that helps LGBT candidates raise money that is headed by Annise Parker, the former Houston mayor who is backing his bid. Buttigieg didn’t automatically win the group’s endorsement, instead having to prove he was competitive first, Parker said.
With so many other current and former mayors running for president — Cory Booker (Newark), Julián Castro (San Antonio) and, previously, Bill de Blasio (New York) — Parker said Buttigieg’s ability to win over his colleagues stands out.
“One telling indicator is that mayors across the country stood up and said, “We like this one,'” Parker said.