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Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg: ‘I know what it is to be on the other side of a fence’

Presidential candidate Peter Buttigieg talked about how Fresno “reminds me of where I come from” during his visit to the central San Joaquin Valley city on Monday.

He compared his city, South Bend, Indiana, where he serves as mayor, to the California city as “a place that has seen its share of struggle and seen its share of poverty and inequality and challenges, and sometimes is forgotten because there are other communities that get a little bit more attention.

“But also, a place where people lift each other up. A place where people know that there is unity in diversity, and a place where people are focused on the future and making sure that it’s better.”

That’s how the 37-year-old military veteran introduced himself to a packed crowd inside Tuolumne Hall, a small community center in downtown Fresno, ahead of a sold-out, nationally-televised town hall planned later in the day at Fresno State.

Buttigieg walked into the event with the crowd chanting a booming “Si Se Puede,” the motto in Spanish made famous by the United Farm Workers.

Immigration was among issues discussed.

“When our immigration authorities are given an inhumane and, in my view, in many ways illegal set of policies to carry out, the results are going to be horrifying,” Buttigieg said. “To now be up to six, seven, children lost in U.S. government custody – the most powerful country in the world ought to have nothing to fear from a child fleeing violence in Central America. But also, a child fleeing violence ought to have nothing to fear in the arms of the most powerful country in the world.”

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People listen to Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg at Tuolumne Hall in downtown Fresno on Monday morning, June 3, 2019. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

He started his 40-minute “meet-and-greet” town hall, which included a lengthy question-and-answer period, by highlighting a few issues, including female reproductive rights, and challenges facing minority communities, including African Americans and those who identify as LGBTQ. Buttigieg is among them.

He introduced his husband, Chasten, who was sitting near the front of the auditorium, while responding to a question about standing against hate crimes that harm people in the LGBTQ community.

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Daniel Schwartz, left, and Chasten Buttigieg, center, husband of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, listen to the candidate’s talk to folks gathered at Tuolumne Hall in downtown Fresno on Monday morning, June 3, 2019. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

“Because of my own life experience, I know what it is to be on the other side of a fence,” Buttigieg said. “I know what it is to be on the other side of a crisis of belonging in this country. All of us do, in different ways and for different reasons.”

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Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg addresses a packed crowd at Tuolumne Hall in downtown Fresno on Monday morning, June 3, 2019. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

He said part of “what’s made this presidency so effective is tapping into the hurt” and preying on insecurities that drive apart people.

Instead, Buttigieg said, people should tap into their own personal stories “as a way to understand what everybody else is going through and stand up for each other, precisely because we are different, and when we do that we are more free.”

Buttigieg said despite President Donald Trump being unpopular, he could win again in 2020 if the Democratic presidential candidate chosen “represents the system” and “going back to normal.”

“I think there are a lot of Americans who are not willing to go back to a normal that has failed them over the course of their lives. … We’ve got to do something completely different. The good news is, I would argue that you have the option to support a candidate who could not be more different than the current president of the United States.”

The importance of leading by example and working together were big talking points for Buttigieg.

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Magdelena Gomez, a Trustee for the State Center Community College District, talks with Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg after he spoke to a packed crowd at Tuolumne Hall in downtown Fresno on Monday morning, June 3, 2019. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

In response to another question, from a member of Fresno’s large Armenian American community about whether he would recognize the Armenian Genocide, Buttigieg said, “To me, the United States needs to stand up for human rights.”

Buttigieg is among more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates vying for their party’s nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020, including former Vice President Joe Biden, and senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris. Last month, Julian Castro was the first 2020 presidential candidate to visit Fresno.

One woman asked Buttigieg why he thought, as the mayor of a city smaller than Fresno, that he has what it takes to become president.

“You can be one of the most senior members of the United States Congress and have never in your life managed more than a few dozen people, maybe a hundred,” he said. “When you are a mayor of a city of any size … it means that you face the challenges of government in the most up-close-and-personal way. … I would argue that there’s no better preparation in government than being a mayor.”

Audience member Alex Garcia, mayor of Wasco, wholeheartedly agrees. Garcia said he’s Kern County’s first LGBT mayor. He was among a crowd of people in overflow seating outside Tuolumne Hall who listened to Buttigieg’s talk live via speakers.

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People cheer on Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg after he spoke at Tuolumne Hall in downtown Fresno on Monday morning, June 3, 2019. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Buttigieg after the event was whisked away in a black SUV following a few short media interviews, including one that he did in Spanish. The interviews were masked by the sound of people nearby chanting their approval for Buttigieg.

Garcia said he admires Buttigieg’s desire to “speak kinder words” in politics and take on a divided congress. Garcia said “all politics are local” and the country needs a president who understands that.

“I really appreciate him coming to the Central Valley because even politicians in Sacramento won’t stop here in the Central Valley, and so it means a lot that he listens to the issues of the farmer and the immigrant,” Garcia said. “These are all issues that are important to us.”

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and nine first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.
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