February 5, 2019 at 1:25 pm PST | by Chris Johnson
Pete Buttigieg makes pitch to LGBT voters in bid to become first out gay president

Pete Buttigieg is hoping to become the first openly gay person to win the Democratic presidential nomination. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

It’s pronounced “Boot-a-judge.”

That was the first thing South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg cleared up for the Washington Blade in response to questions about his 2020 presidential run in a Jan. 31 interview.

Buttigieg, a Rhodes scholar and Afghanistan veteran, beefed up his national profile in his 2017 run to become Democratic National Committee chair.

The 2020 White House hopeful announced his exploratory committee last month. If successful, the long shot Buttigieg would be the first openly gay person to win the Democratic presidential nomination and the White House.

LGBT priorities for Buttigieg, who said he’d run a campaign based on the themes of freedom, democracy and security, include passage of the Equality Act and greater visibility for transgender people.

Distinguishing himself from other 2020 hopefuls, Buttigieg said he supports transgender people having access to transition-related care, even when they’re in prison. Other candidates, including Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, have different records on that issue.

The full Q&A between the Blade and Buttigieg follows:

Washington Blade: You’re running in a field of Democratic candidates, many of whom have been longtime LGBT allies. What do you bring to the table that’s different?

Pete Buttigieg: First of all, I’m very mindful of the possibility of being the first out nominee in American history, and you know, I think it’s safe to say for many reasons, I’m not like the others.

I also just have a different outlook: I am from the industrial Midwest, I’m in local government and I come from a generation that I think really needs to be stepping forward right now. I think our generation has so much at stake in the future and the decisions that are being made today, and I think it really shows the people in charge, like the current president and administration, don’t care very much about the future because they don’t plan to be here.

2054 is the year when I will reach the current age of the current president, and I think you just take some of these decisions about climate, about the economy much more seriously if you’re hoping to be here in 2054.

What we have here right now is a sequence of decisions that have been made that are very short term, very destructive and it’s time for voices from a generation that has a personal stake in that future to step forward and talk about how we can make that future different.

Blade: But what makes you think you can win the White House if you get the nomination?

Buttigieg: I think the message needs to revolve around three themes: freedom, democracy and security. I think that you have a very strong, progressive foundation for those issues, but I also think we’ve not done a very good job of communicating them across the aisle.

Freedom is something that I think has been monopolized by conservatives in terms of political rhetoric, but when I think about everything from the freedom to marry to the freedom to start a new business knowing you can still get health care, it’s really progressive and Democrats have delivered the kinds of freedom that are most important for our daily lived experience.

When it comes to democracy, I think we’ve demonstrated that we are the party that is more interested in making sure that more people can vote, and I think this needs to be part of a national conversation as well. We need to shore up our democracy through a number of reforms, including D.C. statehood, that just make our democratic republic a little more democratic.

And then on security, we’ve got to understand 21st century security means a lot more than just border security and traditional military issues. I was in the military. I certainly spent a lot of time thinking about traditional military issues, but we have to be talking about cybersecurity, election security, climate security, digital security. And I think people are ready for a message that’s just different from what we’ve had before.

We have a profoundly, almost historically, unpopular president, but that doesn’t mean he gets defeated on his own if we don’t have a compelling message that’s different and better.

Blade: Let’s bring this closer to our LGBT readers. How does support for the LGBT community figure into your run for the presidency?

Buttigieg: I think that it will be vital. I think it will be a spruce of lifeblood because we are perhaps the only minority in more or less equal proportion across every racial, ethnic, economic and geographic group in the country, so one thing that will be very important for the success of this project, especially early on when people take your measure based on fundraising is to be able to demonstrate grassroots support from people in the community who believe that representation at the highest levels, actually having someone from the LGBTQ community on the ballot is important, that it will make things better for the next person who comes along and that America needs to be given a chance to demonstrate that it’s ready for this.

Blade: In terms of LGBT rights issues, where do you want to go with that?

Buttigieg: I think one of the big things that we’re looking at, of course, is the Equality Act. I live in a state where it is still — not in South Bend because we took local action, but in most parts of my state it’s still perfectly illegal to be fired for who you are, and I think we need better legislation, civil rights legislation that takes care of that.

Obviously, we have a lot of issues with hate crimes now in Indiana. At the state level, we’ve been pursuing hate crimes legislation. We have federal hate crimes legislation, but we have to do a lot more, including, not just at the policy level, but at the cultural level. There’s several reasons why hate crimes have gone up by most measures in recent years, and I think, a lot of that starts at the top. It has to do with leadership, it has to do with the tone that it set by those in charge and it has to change.

Blade: What concerns you most about how President Trump is handling LGBT issues?

Buttigieg: Obviously the attack on trans rights and the trans military ban is extremely disturbing. When I was in the military, the people I served with could not have cared less whether I was going home to a girlfriend or boyfriend. They just wanted to know that I was going to be someone they could trust with their lives and vice-versa.

Trans members of the military who are willing to put their lives on the line in order to defend this country deserve to be supported by their commander in chief, and it’s extremely disturbing, especially for someone who, let’s face it, kind of pink-washed his campaign early on and portrayed himself as somebody who might change the way the Republican Party related to the LGBT community to turn around and do this demonstrates that he was never serious about that, not to mention the elevation of Mike Pence to one heartbeat away from the presidency.

Blade: What kind of place will transgender people have in your campaign and your presidency?

Buttigieg: A very prominent place. I’ve been really heartened to see more people, especially in my generation, stepping forward. I think Danica Roem opened a lot of doors in terms of elected leadership, and I think we will be looking to make sure that our campaign as well as a future administration reflects the diversity of this country. Obviously, that includes making sure there are visible roles for trans people.

Blade: One question I want to pose to you because it has been a point of differentiation among the Democratic candidates: Should transgender people, even if they’re in prison, have access to gender reassignment surgery?

Buttigieg: Yeah. I believe that’s part of health care. We provide health care to people who are serving the country, we provide health care to people who are incarcerated. I think the bigger issue is that too many people are incarcerated, but if you are, we need to treat everybody the same, and if you regard this, as I do, as part of health care.

Look, people try to turn others against this around the issue of cost, but the spectacular costs of incarceration have very little to do with things like gender reassignment.

Blade: Are you aware Kamala Harris as California attorney general defended the California Department of Corrections in seeking to deny surgery to transgender inmates and what do you make of that?

Buttigieg: I was not aware of that. I do know that California, if I understand correctly, is one of the few places that has been able to provide that, and I think that the rationale for it is based on it being — not only that it can be medically necessary for many inmates, but also there are shockingly high rates of sexual assaults or sexual abuse for transgender people who are incarcerated, so I think that moving in that direction was the right thing to do and I hope that more states take a look at that, especially the ones that want to ensure that we’re preventing sexual abuse.

Blade: What kind of endorsements has your potential candidacy obtained so far and how do you expect them to grow?

Buttigieg: Obviously, this is a very early phase. We just announced the exploratory committee last Wednesday, but we are going to seek endorsements from organizations and individuals. We’ve already reached out to the Victory Fund, to the Human Rights Campaign and to a lot of the people I respect and talked about.

Rightly, they are taking their time and they’re being very deliberate about this, but I do hope that we will earn that and demonstrate somebody like me belongs in this conversation at the highest level. Hopefully, we will continue to mobilize the support we need in order to be taken seriously.

This first quarter is critical because this is where we establish that we belong at the table, then it becomes a matter, once we’ve shown enough early organizational support at the end of the quarter, then we no longer have to answer questions about whether we belong in the conversation and start really focusing on making sure that what we have to say in the conversation justifies more and more support.

Blade: What will it take for you to move from an exploratory committee to a candidacy in the legal sense?

Buttigieg: I want us to be in a position to have a very strong launch coming out of the gate both in terms of the sort of event we are launching and in terms of the organizational support we have on Day One of that phase, that we’re right where we want to be.

Blade: I’ve had experts tell me you face challenges because you don’t have the name recognition of other candidates and you should run for governor and not president. What would you say to that?

This is not about steps for me…I believe in running for an office when you believe what you offer matches the needs of the moment and I am surprised as anybody that things have come this far, but I think we’ve gotten to a moment where what that office most needs is someone entirely new, something very different, something that is not rooted in the way Washington works today and has more generational energy and on the ground local experience than anybody else…

I just don’t believe that you run for office because you would love to have it or because you think it’s the right step along the way because these offices are too important. You run for office because you think what you have meets the moment, and every time I’ve decided to run for office and every time I’ve decided not to run for an office has been the outcome of that same process of discernment.

Blade: Has anyone told you a gay person cannot be elected president in the year 2020?

Buttigieg: Yes. Some believe that’s the case, and I think there is only one way to demonstrate conclusively that that’s not true.

Blade: If there are LGBT people or people anywhere who want to support you, what is the biggest way to help out?

Buttigieg: So, peteforamerica.com is the place where you can add your name to the list, if you want to be on the list so we know you’re a supporter, if you want to make a financial contribution, which again, right now, in terms of showing we belong at the table, part of how they take your measure is that grassroots financial support.

Over time, especially in early states, we will need help on the ground getting known, making introductions, winning people over and then hopefully as that grows, more and more of a field organization that will have all kinds of roles for people, but you can start by going to peteforamerica.com and adding your name so we know who’s out there to support us.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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