BOSTON — Pete Buttigieg, the nascent presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Ind., riled up a crowd of more than 1,000 college students at Northeastern University on Wednesday. Part of his appeal, the students said, was that Buttigieg wasn’t trying to appeal to them.
The 37-year-old Democrat solidified his standing in the 2020 contest when he took in a $7 million fundraising haul in the first quarter of the year. On Wednesday, he staked out policy positions on higher education and health care, reflected on being a millennial in elected office, and spoke about religion and his military service during the hourlong talk.
When Northeastern initially planned Buttigieg’s visit to Boston nine weeks ago, organizers set aside a room that fits around 200 people. As interest in the candidate’s talk grew, the school moved the event to an auditorium that could accommodate 500 people and eliminated the need for tickets. The expanded event still drew an overflow crowd. More than an hour before Buttigieg took the stage, hundreds of people stood in a line that stretched around the building.
He spoke with moderator Kimberly Atkins of the WBUR public radio station for half an hour. When Atkins opened the conversation up to a question-and-answer period, there was a mad dash for several microphones stationed throughout the auditorium. Nearly two dozen people stood in line at each microphone while Buttigieg took questions for 30 minutes.
On policy, Buttigieg talked about a “Medicare for all who want it” option that would ease consumers into public health care. He also called for a new generation of politicians, and suggested that Democrats should reclaim the idea of “freedom” from Republican and Libertarian messaging.
“Freedom for me has depended on the ability to get health care, the ability to marry the person I love, the ability to hold financial institutions accountable,” Buttigieg said.
The South Bend mayor drew applause when he spoke about his support for the “framework” of the Green New Deal, about his husband, Chasten, and when he called the Electoral College “a dumb idea.” At one point, the moderator asked the crowd to hold its applause so Buttigieg could get to more of their questions. While they stopped clapping, many in the crowd continued to snap their fingers in support.
Buttigieg, a veteran who served in Afghanistan, said his generation would deal with damage done by the war in Iraq for decades, and that it “never should have happened.“ He sees the military as one part of a broader national security structure.
“If our democracy can be hacked by a malicious foreign power,” he said,”that is as dangerous to us as anything you can shoot at.”
Atkins asked Buttigieg, who is a practicing Episcopalian, about the decline of religion among millennials. He said religion is a “positive force“ in his life but attributed some of the skepticism young people have around religion to politics.
“The impression a lot of people in our generation got of religion was intervention of religion in the political space designed to constrain our freedom,“ he said, mentioning abortion-rights issues and LGBTQ equality. “It didn’t feel like religious leaders were on our side.“
Buttigieg is aware of the hunger for authenticity in politics among young voters, telling the Northeastern audience that millennials “have a really finely tuned antenna for hypocrisy.” He took a notably more moderate stance on tuition-free college compared with some 2020 Democratic candidates, especially Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. While Buttigieg supports lowering the cost of a higher education, he said, he doesn’t support making college free.
“Americans who have a college degree earn more than Americans who don’t,” he said. “As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.”
And though tuition-free college has been something of a rallying cry for progressive Democrats, especially millennials, since the 2016 election, Buttigieg’s answer impressed many of the college students in the audience.
“I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it was a really thoughtful and good point,” said Ben Vanderlan, 22.
Yael Sheinfeld, president of the Northeastern University College Democrats, said: “He stayed true to himself and had obviously thought through something he thought was a more logical solution to the problem and didn’t just say the political buzzwords that he knows will get support from college students or progressive liberals.” Sheinfeld previously supported former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, another Democrat in the race, but feels Buttigieg embodies what she felt she was “settling for” in other candidates.
To remedy the student debt crisis and the cost of college, Buttigieg instead suggested looking at Pell Grants, states covering a higher proportion of the cost of education than students, a more generous and accessible program for loan forgiveness, and looking at interest rates to refinance loans.
Though 19-year-old Milton Posner shares the progressive views of candidates like Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, he said Buttigieg’s “pragmatic solutions” would be easier to achieve than “lofty goals” or taking “one massive swipe” on issues. Warren, for example, calls for making “systemic change” in Washington on the campaign trail. Sanders often calls for a political revolution.
“I’m struggling to remember a time I was more impressed by a politician,” Posner said. “This was a ‘wow’ kind of thing.”
When a reporter asked the mayor a question in Italian, Buttigieg responded in Italian and carried out a conversation in the language for around two minutes. Buttigieg is known for speaking more than half a dozen languages, including Norwegian.