Would a 37-Year-Old Woman Be Where Pete Buttigieg Is?
Amy Klobuchar was 37 when she ran for Hennepin County district attorney. Her opponent, in a 1998 debate, labeled her “nothing but a street fighter” — to which Ms. Klobuchar responded, “thank you.” The image of a tough competitor is one that Ms. Klobuchar who is now a Democratic senator from Minnesota and presidential candidate, has come to embrace. She swung a punch at a rival in her moderate ring during November’s Democratic debate, taking aim at Pete Buttigieg, then the mayor of South Bend, Ind.
“Do I think that we would be standing on that stage if we had the experience that he had?” Ms. Klobuchar said, speaking for her fellow female contenders. “No, I don’t. Maybe we’re held to a different standard.”
Ms. Klobuchar’s comment touched off conversations about whether a female version of Mr. Buttigieg — elected by fewer than 10,000 votes, with under a decade of experience — could have advanced so quickly in a crowded presidential field. (Tulsi Gabbard, who is 38, and a four-term congresswoman was on that November debate stage, but has not qualified for a debate since.)
The former mayor of Indiana’s fourth largest city now ranks third in the Iowa polls, 13 points ahead of the third-term senator from Minnesota.
Ahead of Mr. Buttigieg’s 38th birthday on Sunday, The Times spoke with female politicians the same age as the former mayor for insights into the career paths and outlooks of women in office, asking them the same questions about politics, experience and identity that Mr. Buttigieg has answered in some form. (The Times scoured databases of elected officials to find people exactly Mr. Buttigieg’s age.)
Some of the women are registered Democrats, others unaffiliated with any party. Many of these women are familiar, as Mr. Buttigieg is, with the skepticism that often greets political ambition — but their gender adds a confounding factor.
Ms. Klobuchar’s question on whether a woman with Mr. Buttigieg’s experience would be on a presidential debate stage goes to both whether a woman with his experience would decide she was qualified to run — and whether donors and voters would find her to be a viable prospect. A woman’s decision might be distorted by self-doubt, said Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers. But it is also influenced by a real understanding of the biases she is likely to face. A recent Ipsos poll found that 74 percent of independents and Democrats would personally be comfortable with a female president, but just 33 percent said the same of their neighbors.
“Men wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say ‘I’d make a really good governor,’” said Professor Dittmar. “We haven’t seen that as much with women.”
What made you decide you were qualified for public office?
Pete Buttigieg, in response to a question from David Remnick at The New Yorker Festival about the “leap of imagination” that made him run for president in 2020:
It’s not lost on me that at no other time in the history of the Republic would somebody like me, doing something like this, have ever gotten this far. I believe that validates the idea that this is a moment that calls for somebody like me.
Amanda Stuck, a Democratic representative in the Wisconsin State Legislature, who announced last year that she is running for Congress. Well, I wouldn’t say I decided I was qualified. In fact, I really thought I wasn’t qualified but my predecessor who held the seat before me had approached me about running when she decided to leave and run for the State Senate. It was really because of her urging that I decided to run, and in fact she asked me the first two times and I said no.
Aja Brown, the Democratic mayor of Compton, Calif. When I made the decision to step forward, I had literally reached out to other people — they were all males, looking back at it. And I asked them about the qualities essential for leadership.
Jessica Hembree, a school board member in Shawnee Mission, Kan. No one over the course of my life had really encouraged me or suggested or invited me to run for anything. I feel like the world is constantly inviting and encouraging men to be leaders and not doing that for women.
Nichole Frethem, member of the Ramsey County, Minn., Board of Commissioners. I’m a dork and not fun at parties and would talk someone’s ear off about a weird public policy nuance, and probably to get away from me they’d say you should run for office.
Jocabed Marquez, a City Council Member in San Marcos, Tex. It’s about representation for me, having that voice, and not just a brown body up on that dais, it’s about the lived experience of people in this town, the continued oppression and discrimination against people that look like me. I’m only the second Latina ever elected to the City Council in my town. The first was in the 1980s, and me in 2018.
Jasmine Clark, a Democratic representative in the Georgia State House. The short answer is I did not know if I was qualified or not but I did know it was something I wanted to do and I felt like there was a need that I could fill in our state legislature and that’s why I put my name on the ballot. Coming from a science background, it’s not like I immediately thought that I would make this great legislator because I’m a scientist and I teach microbiology as my day job. I’m not a lawyer. All the legalese can get confusing. In the end I felt like it was something I could do and I feel like I’m a fast learner.
Emily Holmes, the Democratic township supervisor of North Strabane, Pa. I started out having no political ambitions. I was the judge of elections. I took a look around and realized I could do more than just facilitate the voting process, so I was encouraged by people I knew in my township to run and that gave me the boost I needed to put my name on the ballot.
What’s been your most significant professional setback? How did you recover from it?
Pete Buttigieg, was asked during ABC’s Democratic debate:
I came back from the deployment and realized that you only get to live one life. And I was not interested in not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer, so I just came out. I had no idea what kind of professional setback it would be, especially because inconveniently it was an election year in my socially conservative community.
Jocabed Marquez: I had to take a $39,000 pay cut to serve on the Council because according to Texas law I’m not able to receive government compensation from two government entities. I used to work at the university full-time. If I work at the university and the city full time, I won’t be able to receive full compensation from both. Thirty-nine thousand is a big setback and I’m not sure how I’ll recover financially. So right now I’m living on $18,000 a year salary with a Ph.D. I don’t have access to health insurance.
Emily Holmes: I was laid off in early 2008. I was single, trying to make rent and car payments on my own, living in a city far from any family. I kept going, I took a temp job which ended up lasting a year and a half. I didn’t have benefits and I was making barely enough to scrape by and I would take dog-sitting and babysitting gigs on the weekend to pay my bills.
Jasmine Clark: My biggest professional setback has to be the point in time where I had a Ph.D. and no job. I found myself an expert in microbiology according to my degree, but I wasn’t an expert in all microbiology, I was an expert in a part of microbiology. And when I tried to apply for jobs I had huge impostor syndrome and found myself not really qualified for regular things like biotech because I’d been working on such a specific issue for six years.
Amanda Stuck: When I first got into office I tried to start a bipartisan paper caucus. I spent an entire day calling 35 Republicans and Democrats who had paper companies in their districts to see if they would be interested in starting something like this with me and they all said sure, they were interested keep them informed. And a few hours later Republicans put out a statement saying they were starting the bipartisan paper caucus.
Amanda Edwards, a Democratic member of the Houston City Council who announced in 2019 she is running for U.S. Senate, and shares Mr. Buttigieg’s birthday. Not getting as much traction as I wanted in the area of transit in the city of Houston. We’re adding 4.2 million people to our eight county region and we have not added the resources I would like to see.
Would you have kids in public office? If you already do, what is the balance of work and child care like for you?
Pete Buttigieg, asked by Jake Tapper whether he wants to start a family in the White House:
I don’t see why not. It wouldn’t be the first time that children have arrived to a first couple, but obviously that’s a conversation I had better have with Chasten before I go into it too much on television.
Jasmine Clark: Balancing child care is one of the things that keeps me up at night the most as a legislator. It’s not just as a legislator, it’s as a working mom. What I find is the lack of a real schedule as a legislator makes child care difficult. In Georgia, on the first day we adjourn and they tell us we’re coming back tomorrow. And then the next day. But there’s no schedule, so it’s difficult to plan out things way far in advance. Some days we leave the capitol at noon and some days at 8 p.m. The traditional child care setting is closed by 6 p.m.
Jessica Hembree: Honoring my obligations to our school without cannibalizing or compromising my obligations to my own family is one of the hardest balances to walk. I’ve set up strict parameters, like I will only do two activities a week that take me away from time with my kids. I think if a man set those kinds of boundaries it would be seen as admirable, but as a woman I know they’re not perceived the same way.
Nicole Frethem: I mean, child care was one of the big policy things I wanted to do more to invest in, especially in our family child care providers which in Minnesota are licensed by the county agencies I would oversee as a commissioner. It’s both personal and professional and political for me to talk about child care. The first day after getting sworn in, I had meetings and my daughter was recovering from a little stomach bug and couldn’t go back to day care quite yet so I brought her into the office with me.
Jocabed Marquez: I have a nine-year-old. The thing that makes it difficult for me is I’m currently alone in Texas with my daughter. My husband is in Florida, he works for NASA. He accepted that position, then I got elected and I couldn’t be like ‘hey voters, you all voted for me, bye.’ I have a lot of evening meetings and council sometimes goes from 3 p.m. to 12 a.m. and it’s really difficult to balance. My daughter’s like ‘you always drag me to meetings, I want to do something fun.’
Aja Brown: In order for me to be an effective leader, I have to have balance with my family. Being a mother has given new dimension to many of the challenges my constituents face. It’s one thing to understand that people deserve time with their family and paid family leave, but when you experience it you realize it’s really a human need.
Emily Holmes: On nights when I have meetings, my neighbor is kind enough to watch the kids. It’s what I call the mother shuffle, it’s always shifting things around to make everything work as well as you can and no one has it down perfectly.
How do you make sure your constituents know you respect the gravity and responsibility of holding public office?
Pete Buttigieg, asked by Gabriel Debenedetti in New York Magazine about the importance of ceremony in politics:
If you show vulnerability in the wrong way — that’s actually something I usually lean heavily on in building relationships, or even in political rhetoric — in sort of symbolic moments, that makes it more about you, and takes it away from the moment.
Jocabed Marquez: You’ll never see me in public grabbing a drink with a friend or even dancing. Little things like that people might perceive as ‘she’s being seductive.’ Even the way I dress and present myself and speak, I don’t know, I want my constituents to know I take this office responsibly and I hold myself to a really high standard.
Jasmine Clark: I always feel like I have to be dressed up. Even to the point now where I feel a little self-conscious leaving my house to go to the grocery store if I’m not dressed up to the point where if I meet a constituent they feel like they made a good decision when they voted for me, so never wearing PJs to get milk.
Amanda Edwards: A lot of the issues people are facing are life and death issues, access to health insurance, immigration, gun violence. I want to make sure people understand I get that. My dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was ten years old and he died when I was 17. I learned what access to health insurance looked like by asking my father whether his treatments were going to be covered or not. That’s a real issue. For so many, I’m speaking for them when I say that.
Aja Brown: I always think about how to communicate to people in a respectful way. Sometimes our constituents can help us better frame the issues, it’s really a two-way street. Once we properly identify the challenge, we can come up with better solutions.
What book has had the greatest impact on you?
Pete Buttigieg, asked by Mr. Debenedetti in New York Magazine about books that have impacted him:
“Ulysses” by James Joyce.
Jasmine Clark: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Amanda Stuck: “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison.
Aja Brown: The Bible.
Nicole Frethem: Lindy West completely changed the way I think about bodies. And Octavia Butler is a freaking genius.
Brigid Kelly, a Democrat in the Ohio House of Representatives. “Great Expectations.” Not because I read it, but because I didn’t, it was in freshman year of high school and I thought I could just skate by. That was an important lesson about why it’s always important to do the work and to be prepared.
Emily Holmes: “The Word Collector,” it’s a kids book. And “The Catcher in the Rye.”
Jessica Hembree: “Give and Take” by Adam Grant.
Amanda Edwards: “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell. That’s what my journey is in this moment.
What goes through your head when selecting an outfit in the morning?
Pete Buttigieg, asked about his aversion to dress jackets, as cited in the Chicago Tribune:
I don’t know, I just feel more comfortable with my sleeves rolled up.
Nicole Frethem: I know that I look younger, I’m already the youngest on my county board so I was told repeatedly to make sure that I look professional. But also, I mean it’s Minnesota so I need to be practical and wear the right footwear.
Jocabed Marquez: We Latinas are overly sexualized. I’m always very careful of people not perceiving me as too sexy or giving off a sexual vibe. It’s a delicate balance, because there’s things I can’t control about how my face looks or my body looks. I don’t want to look too expensive and it’s like she looks elitist, or if I look poor it’s like I’m perpetuating the poor Mexican stereotype.
Aja Brown: I think about if I can easily nurse my daughter with what I’m wearing.
Brigid Kelly: I’ve worn green to work every day since I was elected — it makes it easier for my constituents to find me if we haven’t met.
What experience best prepared you for elected office?
Pete Buttigieg, asked by Dan Pfeiffer on Pod Save America about the experiences that best prepared him for office:
Every person who’s walked into that job has been a mortal with some set of life experiences. And I think the experiences that I have, and I get also that as the youngest guy in the mix it’s kind of cheeky to be talking about experience, but the experience of a mayor of a city of any size, but especially a strong mayor system like we have where there’s no city manager. I get the call on anything.
Jocabed Marquez: I taught at two high schools in South Texas. From that experience I gained a lot of understanding of how systemic injustice works and how we oppress people through institutions such as schools and colleges, and route them into different careers based on where they live and where they grew up.
Jasmine Clark: Defending my dissertation. When you have to defend your dissertation, there are people in the room who have to tear apart the last six or seven years of your life. Being able to defend what you have worked so hard for, or know is correct because you’ve done the work and research, all of that helps me in my decision-making as a legislator.
Brigid Kelly: Union negotiations, there is no better way to learn when to fight and when to compromise, to learn about prioritizing issues and understand the value of preparedness.
Amanda Stuck: I think my involvement in the community before I ran, because I really understood different community groups and what their needs were and the populations they were serving. I had actually served in AmeriCorps working for Habitat for Humanity, and I had been involved with the Hispanic Interagency Council.
Emily Holmes: It’s the variety, including parenthood. I’ve worked in various industries, everything from nonprofits to education to a law firm and defense contractor. I’ve had a variety of experiences with people and dealing with children, that takes a lot of patience and politics takes a lot of patience.
Have you ever been targeted or discriminated against on the basis of your identity? What was your response?
Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, asked by Preet Bharara about the responses he got to coming out in South Bend.
There was a nasty gram in the inbox [once], somebody talking about how by visiting the school and bringing Chasten a cup of coffee, I had put things in kids heads that they had no business knowing about at that age, and it was like I was corrupting the youth by trying to be nice to my partner.
Jocabed Marquez: On a daily basis here in Texas. In my town there’s a big legacy of the Klan. Back in the 1920s the Klan used to march down the street in San Marcos. Twenty thousand members of the Klan used to gather and have their rallies. But just because the Klan doesn’t officially exist anymore [doesn’t mean] those ideologies don’t still exist and permeate through the thoughts of people. And because I’m a woman and I’m brown, it’s like a double jeopardy. Everything I say is taken out of context. If a white male says the exact same thing everybody all of a sudden understands because that white male mansplained or whitesplained it.
Amanda Stuck: I’ve had people question can I really be a mom and a politician at the same time. One of the things that really surprised me and bugged me was even after I got elected people kept saying well we assumed you wanted to be on the education or health committee because I was a woman. I wanted to be on the jobs and economy committee, and the energy and utilities committee.
Jasmine Clark: I look young so people assume I’m not a legislator unless I have my badge. I’m a young black woman with natural hair, they probably are more likely to assume I’m an activist than an actual legislator, or I’m a student or I’m somebody’s legislative aide.
Jessica Hembree: I’ve had nicknames that were pejorative and reference my femininity. Someone I knew was referring to me as ‘skirts’ behind my back. I think as a young woman who steps into a leadership role you have to have a pretty high ability to let those types of things roll off your back.
Amanda Edwards: I’ve had lots of comments made to me that I don’t belong because of age, race, all those things. I kind of deal with it on a very frequent basis. But you can’t allow other people’s limited viewpoints to become your own.
How do you help people heal from the pain of this divisive political moment?
Pete Buttigieg in conversation with Kara Swisher on Recode about how to “heal that pain” caused by a tumultuous political time:
Well, the first way you get that is by winning. The way you sustain it is to summon Americans and do bigger projects. It’s why I believe national service is very important because it sets up some common experiences for different Americans.
Jasmine Clark: Sometimes I just ask people how they’re feeling. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s nice to let a person vent. Other times, I understand that while I’m a pretty straight-faced person and try to keep emotions out of my decisions when deciding on policy, a lot of people are driven by emotions and fears and desires, and so I try to make sure that when I’m talking about any issue, I also speak to the emotions and not negate them as if they don’t matter.
Amanda Stuck: I’m trying to show how we can work better together and being the kind of politician that doesn’t attack the other party. I’m one of the only Democrats that shows up at the conservative coalition town hall in my district, and I think it’s really important that I still show up and listen.
What would you say to voters who have reservations about voting for a woman?
Pete Buttigieg, asked by NPR about what he would say to voters with reservations voting for someone who is gay:
I think the question that voters are asking is, how’s my life going to be different if you’re president? And in order to earn votes, my job is to go out there and answer that question. And I think a lot of the other stuff falls away if and only if you have a good answer to that question.
Jasmine Clark: Why? Vote for the person who’s going to do the job and do the job correctly. Vote for the platform, not the person and it shouldn’t matter if they’re a man or woman.
Jocabed Marquez: People have these reservations about women being too emotional. I’ve found that my constituents like me being emotional, me being passionate when I’m on the dais. Even my Republican supporters connect with me because of the preservation of neighborhoods, because I fight not to have these developers come into our town.
Nicole Frethem: You’ve got two options. You can either say bye, because if you’re the sort of person who’s going to be like ‘I’m not gonna vote for a woman,’ I’m not going to change your mind and I could probably do more good talking to someone else. But there’s the other alternative of asking ‘why would you say that,’ and it’s that strategy people tell you to use when someone tells an offensive joke and you say ‘why is that funny can you explain that to me?’ It’s harder to have that conversation with someone who’s like I have no problem voting for a woman, I just don’t like her voice, or she gives me a bad vibe, or whatever it is, when it’s coded.
Jessica Hembree: I most frequently heard you can’t possibly be old enough to run, which I learned only happens when I have my hair in a ponytail. But older women voters in our community would say I’m so happy for you, I could have never even dreamed of doing what you’re doing when I was younger, and I love hearing that.
Aja Brown: The majority of voters are women, so it’s really about connecting with one another and challenging perceptions by countering them with facts. Women have historically been effective leaders, and pragmatic. When people second guess the ability of women to lead, I always challenge them because women have such a prevalent position in our family structures.
What does fighting for gender equality mean to you?
Pete Buttigieg, asked by Refinery29 “As a man, what makes these women-oriented policies personal to you?”
As a man, I haven’t experienced sex-based discrimination in that way, but what I do know is that organizations tend to make better decisions when women are empowered. That’s true of my mayor’s office, and it’s true of my campaign staff, which is more equitable because it’s over 50 percent women. That’s why, as part of this plan, I’m committed to a cabinet that would be over 50 percent female. I also grew up watching my mother navigate the workplace of a university in a fairly conservative community, and I think it’s very important to draw on what we know from personal experience and apply that to empower others.
Nicole Frethem: For me it means living as if you have it. There was this man I went to college with who was a super confident white man and he never had a meal plan in college, he just walked in every day and ate for free. I tell myself sometimes when I’m scared, walk like you’ve got a meal plan.
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