INDIANAPOLIS – Chants of “Pete” filled the historic Union Station on Thursday night as hundreds of young Democrats from around the nation embraced Pete Buttigieg after a 20-minute speech about growing up as a Democrat and what he would do differently if elected president.
He took aim at the recent furor over President Donald Trump telling four congresswomen to “go back” where they came from though all but one was born in the United States.
Buttigieg said Republicans “want to change the subject to the race and origin of four progressive young congresswomen, so that everyone forgets what those members of Congress are actually working on – which, today, happens to be raising the minimum wage.”
He said Democrats need to reject racism and demagoguery while not letting Trump steal the oxygen from what Democrats are doing right.
And in a meeting with reporters after the speech he said he doesn't take Trump at his word that he didn't like the “send her back” chants at a Wednesday night rally.
“If President Trump really cared he would have done something on the spot about it,” Buttigieg said. “He lacks courage to do that. He needs us divided. He wants us divided.
It was Buttigieg's first campaign event in Indianapolis since entering the presidential fray in April.
Buttigieg, 37, is trying to crash the party of the establishment Democrats running for president by bringing a youthful approach to the race. That made his appearance at the Young Democrats of America national convention an obvious choice.
He has been mayor of South Bend for eight years but also has a varied background. He is a Rhodes scholar who speaks seven languages, is an Afghanistan military veteran and is openly gay and married. His stature started growing with a short bid for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Buttigieg has made it to the top tier of candidates – hauling in more cash than any other Democrat in the most recent fundraising period. But his single-digit polling hasn't seen the same upward trajectory.
He said he is pleased to be in the tier he's in “but we have a lot of work to do to get known. I don't think it's as much about any individual made-for-television moment. It's about building relationships with America as a whole and with voters especially in these key early states.”
His speech included what it was like to see GOP policies while growing up.
“To come of age in the 21st century is to see virtually every major prediction and policy advanced by the Republican Party in your adult lifetime fail before your eyes when put into practice,” Buttigieg said. “Nothing they say actually works in the real world. They say young people are idealistic. But we're not Democrats because of our idealism, we're Democrats because of our reality.”
He has struggled in his home city, which has been in turmoil following the shooting death of a black man by a white police officer. The officer did not use his body cam to record the events. Aside from the shooting, under Buttigieg the number of black officers has dropped.
At the very beginning of the speech chants of “black lives matter” took over “Pete” and Buttigieg quickly responded, “black lives matter. We're on the same team.”
A few hecklers made comments throughout the speech for him to drop out. Afterward he said he has laid out a comprehensive plan to dismantle systemic racism.
“The plan is very well received, but I've got a lot of work to do to go out and communicate it,” Buttigieg said. “We still need to build up name recognition and a sense of familiarity and trust with voters around the country.”
He included several initiatives: a call to national service that will deliver a million paid service opportunities a year for people across the nation; a plan to build equality in home ownership, entrepreneurship, health, justice, education and democracy for black Americans; and action on gun violence, immigration reform and climate change.
Indiana Republicans took the opportunity to throw jabs about Buttigieg's relative absence from Indiana while he campaigns.
“After spending more time recently in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, New York and California than the city he's employed to lead, it's great to finally welcome Pete Buttigieg back to Indiana,” said Indiana Republican Party spokesman Pete Seat. “We hope Buttigieg can squeeze in a trip to South Bend while he's here, where he might find time out of his busy schedule of big-dollar fundraisers with liberal celebrities to address his city's vast issue of residents not even feeling safe in their own neighborhoods.”
Democrats did the same thing when then-Gov. Mike Pence ran for vice president and visited the state once a week.
Buttigieg's response: “That's cute. Indiana is my home.”