South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic presidential candidate, grills food during the Carroll County Democrats’ barbecue at Graham Park on the Fourth of July. (Photos by Caitlin Yamada)
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic presidential candidate, grills food during the Carroll County Democrats’ barbecue at Graham Park on the Fourth of July. (Photos by Caitlin Yamada)

July 8, 2019

The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told a Fourth of July crowd at Carroll’s Graham Park that he won’t be smothered by President Donald Trump’s relentless tweeting, the political tentacles that reach from cellphones and cable TV screens to snare the daily narrative, the national oxygen.

“If you’re on his show, you’re losing,” said Pete Buttigieg, a Democratic candidate for president.

He added, “We’re just going to pick up the remote and change the channel.”

The Oval Office aspirant spent about 90 minutes in Carroll at a barbecue picnic hosted by the Carroll County Democratic Party. Buttigieg, one of 24 Democrats in the White House race, delivered a speech and than chatted individually with dozens of area residents — most Democrats, but many independents and Republicans.

“He’s well spoken, there’s no doubt about it,” said LaVern Dirkx, a Carroll City Councilman who is a registered independent and undecided in the presidential race. “I didn’t have any problems with what he said.”

Dirkx said a mayor can understand the effects of decisions in Washington, D.C. on smaller cities, something he sees as an asset for Buttigieg in the race.

Carroll County Democratic Party Chairman Peter Leo of Manning said Buttigieg is an inspirational speaker.

Buttigieg advocated a national service plan with a goal of requiring a year of service for the nation’s 4 million high school graduates annually — ranging from entering the military to working with senior care, community health and other programs.

“I’m excited that he’s talking about things like national service and coming together as a country and making politics about what’s good for everybody and not just beating up on the other side,” said Leo, who is neutral in the Democratic nominating process and has introduced several candidates in the Carroll area.

Buttigieg, elected at age 29 as mayor, said he has more years of experience in government than Trump.

Buttigieg, a Rhodes Scholar, studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and holds a bachelor’s degree in history and literature from Harvard, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. Buttigieg was born in South Bend.

A former officer in the Naval Reserves, Buttigieg served in Afghanistan. He noted that he would have the most military experience of any president since George H.W. Bush.

“Somebody who has had that war-time experience maybe has a little more credibility in pointing out that we have to end endless war,” Buttigieg said in an interview.

Buttigieg would be the first openly gay candidate for a major party were he to earn the Democratic nomination in the coming two years. His husband, Chasten, is a junior high school teacher who has traveled with Buttigieg to Iowa, including on the trip to Carroll, were he talked with many locals and posed for photos with them.

One of those people was Sonia Cuvelier-Walsh, 47, a registered Libertarian, who attended the Buttigieg event with her third-oldest child, Sammie, 16, who will be 18 and able to vote in the 2020 general election.

“He can put together a cohesive sentence, so that’s a breath of fresh air,” Cuvelier-Walsh said. “He’s measured and thoughtful, and you can tell that he’s thinking about the issues that matter to rural people and will make an impact. He’s understanding that our perspective is a lot of Americans’ perspective, and we need to be heard.”

Cuvelier-Walsh, a theater teacher who owns Serendipity Acting Studio on Highway 30 in Carroll, long has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community.

“I hope at this point in the conversation about that community (that) this doesn’t have to be the shining beacon above all else,” Cuvelier-Walsh said. “There are other layers to them as people, but that, though, is still a wonderful and amazing representation for the community to see someone who truly is them, to have somebody who’s on the platform talking and they know firsthand what challenges they have had to overcome, what the obstacles have been for them, seeking employment or going to get a freaking wedding cake, whatever it is.”

At the beginning of the Q-and-A session on the south side of the Graham Park shelterhouse, Buttigieg, who has faced criticism in the aftermath of a white South Bend police officer’s recent shooting of an African American, fielded a question from Omaha, Nebraska, attorney Dave Begley, 61, who prefaced his query with the observation that Buttigieg should simply “tell the black people of South Bend to stop committing crimes.”

The Carroll crowd booed Begley as he asked the question.

“The fact that a black person is four times as likely as a white person to be incarcerated for the exact same crime is evidence of systemic racism,” Buttigieg answered. “It is evidence of systemic racism and, with all due respect, sir, racism makes it harder for good police officers to do their job, too. It is a smear on law enforcement.”

Following the event, Begley told the Carroll Times Herald that he resented being called a racist. Former Republican Statehouse candidate Dan Dirkx of Auburn told Begley his question was out of line, that he should not single out black people.

“I’m sorry my question wasn’t as precise as you’d like,” Begley told Dan Dirkx.

Leo said Begley has a history of disrupting Democratic events and that he urged Buttigieg staff not to allow the man to called on.

LaVern Dirkx said the episode showed the mayor had the mettle to handle such a confrontation.

“I liked how he addressed that first gentleman who had that question,” LaVern Dirkx said. “That was under the gun, and he handled that very well.”

Buttigieg also responded to questions on farming, including one from Elizabeth Garst of Coon Rapids, the member of one of the state’s more prominent agricultural families, who asked what the mayor would change in the farm bill.

Buttigieg said he would like to see more sustainable fertilizer encouraged and added that he is concerned about consolidation in the agricultural sector. Big picture, he wants to see changes to the “whole math of this,” situations in which farmers are in jeopardy because of trade and pricing practices. He indicated support for the Renewable Fuel Standard and wants to wipe out what he said are unfair small refinery waivers that benefit oil companies at the expense of farmers.

The Democratic Party will no longer ignore rural or conservative areas,” Buttigieg said.