After a crushing and embarrassing electoral defeat in 2016, the Democratic Party is left teetering on the brink of irrelevancy and in desperate need of fresh leadership. The GOP now controls the White House, both houses of Congress, governorships in 33 states and both chambers of the state legislature in 32 states. We all thought Trump’s nomination signaled the death of the Republican Party as we knew it. And, while that may still be true in some respect, we are now faced with an alternate reality in which it is the Democrats who are having their come to Jesus moment. Now is the time for introspection. We must avoid the mistakes of the past that led us to our current reality. Now is the time for fresh faces.
This week an old friend popped up in the news cycle as a potential candidate to head the DNC. I met Peter Buttigieg when we were both students at Harvard and he was running the Institute of Politics’ Senior Advisory Committee. Peter, only 34 years old, currently serves as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana from which he took a brief leave of absence to serve as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, serving in Afghanistan. While Peter made the mistake of endorsing Secretary Clinton in the Democratic Primary (he did so along with a group of mayors in Indiana), he wrote his award-winning Profiles in Courage essay about the political courage of Senator Bernie Sanders. Peter is a Rhodes Scholar, worked in the private sector at two consulting firms and has volunteered or worked on several Democratic campaigns across the country. He won his first election for mayor with 74 percent of the vote and, after writing a letter to his constituents revealing himself as a gay man, won reelection with 80 percent of the popular vote. Peter has been called the future of the Democratic Party and the New York Times wondered whether he would be America’s first gay president.
Peter has an impressive record in South Bend. His “1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days” initiative demolished or refurbished 1,000 properties across South Bend. The once famous Studebaker assembly plant, which has been closed for over fifty years, is being repurposed into a mixed use facility. Under Buttigieg’s leadership the city of South Bend also partnered with the University of Notre Dame as part of the White House’s MetroLab Network. The city and school will work together to come up with “smart solutions” to city problems. New construction in the city’s center including the South Bend River Lights public art installation have transformed the downtown area of South Bend. And, the 311 line ― a customer service line for the city, seeking to solve the day to day problems of residents ― that debuted in 2013 has fielded over 100,000 calls, providing important data to the city.
South Bend had been in decline prior to Peter’s terms as mayor. In 2010 South Bend was named one of “America’s Dying Cities” by Newsweek. The unemployment rate was over 12.4 percent in 2010. It is 5.8 percent as of April. Anecdotal evidence of more graduate students living downtown show a reverse in the migration out of South Bend that had dominated the years previous to Buttigieg assuming office. Peter has a record as a turnaround specialist and that is exactly what the Democratic Party needs right now- a fresh face, competitive ideas and a new direction.
If Democrats are paying attention, we are not in a good position. Our ideas proved to be uncompetitive in the marketplace of ideas in 2016. And, now we are faced with a choice: to double down on what proved to be ineffective or plot a new course. Peter Buttigieg might seem like an unlikely candidate to head up the Democratic Party now, but avoiding a bold choice and a step in a new direction might prove fatal for the party. I have considered the list of candidates for DNC chair and in many of them I see the Democratic Party’s past. Peter is without a doubt its future. In Peter’s essay about Senator Sanders he wrote that Sanders’ courage and ability to bring people across party lines are what make him stand out as a leader. I hope that Peter will get a chance to exemplify those ideals himself while leading the Democratic Party back into prominence.