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'He's a rock star': One of the DNC chair runners up emerges as a national figure

Maxwell Tani
pete buttigieg

(Pete Buttigieg speaks during a Democratic National Committee forum in Baltimore.REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)
ATLANTAJohn Verdejo had never heard of Pete Buttigieg before the Democratic National Committee chair's race. By Saturday's vote, he had only one impression of the South Bend, Indiana, mayor.

"Mind. Blown. Mind. Blown. You ask any of the DNC members here, and he was their second choice. I don't care if you voted for Perez first, Ellison first — Buttigieg was their No. 2," the North Carolina DNC member said here at the committee's winter meeting in Atlanta.

Buttigieg ultimately failed to secure the DNC chairmanship: Lacking the votes to secure the role, the 36-year-old mayor dropped out of the race Saturday before anyone got the chance to vote for him, and former labor secretary Tom Perez secured the role in a tight race with Rep. Keith Ellison.

Yet Democrats here were quick to heap praise on the mayor, pointing to a stacked and diverse background and resume: He is a gay, Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar, a Navy veteran, and an accomplished pianist.

But particularly, many Democrats noted his ability to transcend the rift between the establishment and the ascendant progressive wing of the party.

"He very much is the future of the party," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told Business Insider in an interview on Friday, before the vote. "I expect Tom Perez or Keith Ellison to elevate him."

Many progressive figures in the party were equally impressed by the South Bend mayor.

"I thought he ran an impressive campaign," Jeff Weaver, Sen. Bernie Sanders' former campaign manager, said on Saturday. "He coalesced a lot of support coming from a red state, and I think people were very impressed with his ability convey a powerful message. I think there is certainly a future for him in the party if he wants to have a national profile."

Buttigieg also got the nod from former President Barack Obama's top staffers, including David Axelrod and Dan Pfeiffer, who said they'd be watching the mayor's next moves.

Perhaps lacking the credibility of a serious challenger, Buttigieg's bid raised his national profile without damaging him in a way that negative press stories bruised Perez and Ellison. 

In the final week of the campaign, some media outlets were enamored with the mayor. He attracted local press attention in states like California. The left-leaning outlet Salon said Buttigieg was “shaking up the race” for DNC chair by airing out the toxicity of the fight between Perez and Ellison. And he garnered positive coverage for his debate performance on CNN.

Still, part of Buttigieg's appeal to many Democrats may also prove to be a liability.

His red-state pedigree is untested outside of a fairly small arena. He's won two elections in a left-leaning college town, and he would face an uphill battle running for higher office in his home state.

Republicans maintained their hold over the Hoosier state last year: US Senate favorite Evan Bayh bungled his attempt to retake his seat, while Republicans also maintained their control over the governorship. Buttigieg's only experience running for state office was a bid for state treasurer in Indiana in 2010 — he was pummeled by opponent Richard Mourdock by more than 10 percentage points.

But many supporters feel the DNC race marked the birth of Buttigieg's national career.

"He's using today as a jump-off point to something else," said Verdejo, the North Carolina DNC member.

When asked what that could be, Verdejo replied: "Senator. Or even president, why not? Swing big. He looks good onstage, speaks well. He's a rockstar. He represents all that this party is about."

At least one person close to the mayor agrees with that.

"I've always joked with him like he should run for president," Buttigieg's partner, Chasten Glezman, said in an interview Friday. "Because I think that he's genuine, he's authentic, and he's exactly what this country needs."

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