2020 Presidential Candidate Series — Mayor Buttigieg

Update 360 — 2020 Presidential Cand. Series:
Economic Agenda of Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Who is Mayor Pete and what is his early polling boomlet about? At 37, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg would be the youngest president in American history.  Several recent presidents have entered office earlier in their lives than might have been ideal and the incumbent’s lack of experience is producing stupendous legislative inefficacy.  So this is a concern going in.

But what about candidate Buttigieg’s domestic economic policy and platform?  What sets him apart from the field? What are his priorities? And what can we learn from his tenure as mayor?  See below.




Pete Buttigieg is the youngest Democrat running in a packed primary. Something of a prodigy, Buttigieg attended Harvard College, was a Rhodes Scholar, and won election as Mayor of South Bend, Indiana by the age of 29.

Unlike famously wonky Sens. Warren and Sanders, or tenured politicians like Sens. Booker, Gillibrand, and Klobuchar, Buttigieg doesn’t boast comprehensive plans to analyze or legislative history to critique. He doesn’t want to “drown people in minutiae.”

That said, his support for redistributive tax policy and anti-poverty programs in South Bend offer a potential insight into the policy direction he may take as a rising star in the Democratic presidential candidate field.

Midwest Mayor, Ploughing Under

Buttigieg placed economic recovery at the forefront of his mayoral campaign. South Bend faces many issues common among Rust Belt towns: a declining population, lagging employment, and stagnant wage growth.

During his run, Buttigieg cited vacant housing as the number one issue for city residents. South Bend’s population is down 30 percent from its peak in 1960, leaving roughly 13 percent of metro area housing vacant or abandoned — a total of more than 13,000 homes. These properties drive down surrounding property values due to crumbling façades and a tendency to attract crime.

A year into his first term, Buttigieg responded with the “1,000 Houses in 1,000 Days” initiative, finishing two months ahead of schedule and achieving a 60:40 ratio of demolished vs. repaired homes. The program was met with mixed reviews, with some arguing that the scheme was just another form of gentrification. In the following months, Buttigieg continued to devote city funds to affordable housing construction and repair efforts.

Other notable economic accomplishments during Buttigieg’s mayoral tenure include transforming the long-shuttered Studebaker plant into a successful electric vehicle manufacturing center and an urban development program to revitalize downtown South Bend.  The latter has been credited with attracting significant private investment to the downtown area.

It is yet to be seen how Buttigieg’s experience as a small-town Mayor can translate to the national stage. His Midwestern pedigree is likely to influence his national policy, and he could have appeal to the kinds of voters who defected to Trump during the 2016 election. He doesn’t have the legislative history of some of his fellow candidates who hail from the House and Senate, but he has expressed support for a number of national economic policies that deserve attention.

Signature Economic Proposal:  TBD

Buttigieg’s biggest economic policy idea? Make “capitalism work for everyone.” Joining a chorus of and fellow Democratic frontrunners, Buttigieg has hinted at support for a higher marginal tax rate for top earners, a Warren-esque wealth tax concept, a higher estate tax on some of the biggest estates, and a financial transaction tax on a broad range of market participants.  

On increasing the marginal income tax rate for top earners, Buttigieg is “intrigued” by a top rate of just under 50 percent. He made clear earlier this year that keeping the top rate under 50 percent was important because “there’s something about paying the majority of a dollar that comes your way to Uncle Sam that I think people have more trouble with.” He added that he would be for a wealth tax at a “reasonable rate,” noting that “concentrated wealth has become concentrated power.”

Buttigieg also expressed support for Rep. DeFazio and Sen. Schatz’s proposed tax that would impose a small 0.1 percent levy on financial transactions, including stocks, bonds, and derivatives, as well as closing several tax loopholes that favor the wealthy.

Honorable Mentions

Mayor Pete has expressed support for other economic policy ideas, including:

  • Public financing of elections: Buttigieg has expressed support for a small-donor matching system, similar to that proposed in the For the People Act (H.R. 1/S. 949), to challenge special interest money and restore America’s democracy.
  • Student loan reform: Buttigieg would be the first president to owe student loan debt, with an outstanding obligation of over $130,000 according to his campaign. He has expressed support for number of student debt reforms, including an expansion of the Pell Grant program, “debt-free” college for low-income families, and a bolstering of the existing Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
  • Increasing worker rights and protections: Buttigieg supports a national $15 minimum wage and mandating paid family and medical leave. Due to his exposure to harmful right-to-work laws in his home-state of Indiana, he also advocates for a revamped “Wagner Act” to bolster organized labor and worker rights.

Big on Values, Scant on Policy (for Now)

As Buttigieg’s national exposure increases, he will face mounting pressure to define a more detailed policy agenda. At present, his lack of policy proposals makes it hard to place him in a progressive or moderate camp. His reluctance to put forward detailed policy proposals may not matter right now, but as we head toward the first debate later this month, a dearth of policy could leave potential voters wanting more.

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