Alumni Spotlight: South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg Reflects on Washington Week, Leadership and Public Service

Mayor of South Bend Indiana and USSYP alumnus Peter Buttigieg greeting constituents.

We are so pleased to be able to share an exciting new Alumni Spotlight featuring USSYP Alum Peter Buttigieg (IN – 2000).  Affectionately known as “Mayor Pete” to his South Bend, Indiana constituents, Peter Buttigieg (pronounced ‘buddah-jedge’) embodies the passion and energy that drive Senate Youth delegates and alums in all fields of service. A magna cum laude Harvard graduate as well as a Rhodes Scholar, Peter commissioned as a Naval Intelligence Officer, served a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan in 2013, and remains a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve in addition to being the youngest mayor ever elected to represent a U.S. city with population greater than 100,000.  In June of 2015, he publicly announced that he is gay, becoming the first openly gay elected official in Indiana.  We learn today about this extraordinary alum’s pathway to elected office and the lasting impressions his Washington Week experience imparted.

In addition to attending Washington Week during his senior year of high school, Peter won the Profile in Courage Essay Contest for his essay on the integrity and political courage demonstrated by then-U.S. Congressman Bernie Sanders of Vermont, one of the nation’s only Independent members of Congress at that time. He highlighted the importance of principled leadership, compromise and civility among elected leaders, characteristics central to the founders of the United States Senate Youth Program and core tenets of the program’s mission to this day.

Since first being elected mayor of his hometown of South Bend, Indiana in 2011, Mayor Pete has been credited with overseeing an economic turnaround based on housing and community redevelopment, among other initiatives that focus on inclusion and diversity.  We were fortunate to track Mayor Pete down for an interview and appreciate his and his team’s support of the United States Senate Youth Program.

For more on Mayor Peter Buttigieg, please see the following articles:

Washington Post Magazine – Could Pete Buttigieg Become The FIrst Millenial President – January 2019

Rolling Stone – August 2018

For past Alumni Spotlights, visit  USSYP Blogs

Mayor Pete speaking at a re-election event in South Bend.

USSYP: What were your favorite memories of your Washington Week experience in 2000?

PB: I loved every minute of my Washington Week. I remember being awed by the Capitol building, by the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, and by the extraordinary speakers—but by the end it was the other delegates I found the most interesting. Many are friends to this day, from Chris Moffo, whom I would go on to work with on campaigns, to David Wax, whose musical career has been inspiring and whose band played at my wedding earlier this year!

USSYP: Did you have a favorite speaker and if so, what impacted you that he or she said?

PB: I remember Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee describing the concept of a citizen-legislator, and while I have never served in the legislative branch, the idea has stuck with me. There is nothing wrong with a lifetime of public service, but I understood then the vision of government that included people who came from various walks of life and were destined to “return to the plow” after their time in the halls of power.

USSYP: Do you recall your Military Mentor during Washington Week and did this person make an impression on you?

PB: I still clearly remember Lieutenant Gass, USN, and Lieutenant Ahern, USCG. Both gave me a sense of what an officer should be like—courteous, energetic, yet more approachable than I would have guessed. They gave great advice on things from military service to how to handle the intimidating array of cutlery at those fancy lunches. Years later, when I was myself a Naval officer, I thought often of their example.


Mayor Pete enjoying interacting with residents of South Bend.

USSYP: What is your favorite part of being mayor of South Bend?

PB: There’s no greater thrill than being able to shape the town you grew up in. South Bend is full of people committed to making this community better—every day I get to speak with these people and work on solving the many challenges facing South Bend.

USSYP: Can you tell us what a typical day as mayor is like for you?

PB: There’s no such thing as a fully predictable day as mayor. Sometimes my morning starts with two morning press stops before 7:00 a.m. I’ll find some breakfast, then get to work catching up on email and yesterday’s news. I’ll typically have a number of briefing meetings before taking a lunch with a department head, Council member, or community stakeholder. We may have a ribbon cutting or public event in the afternoon before we round out the workday with an all-staff meeting. In between are various surprises—crises, opportunities, or both—for me and my team to handle. Late in the day I may go to one or two community events before heading home and starting again the next day.

USSYP: What advice would you give other young leaders looking to pursue careers in politics and public service?

PB: The most important thing is to remember your “why.” It could be a story of the kind of person you serve, an injustice you hope to correct, or a vision you hope to make reality for your community. Whatever that “why” is, it will propel you through long days and guide you through those moments in your career where you must put something on the line—maybe your career itself—in order to be worthy of your role.

For more on Mayor Pete’s life story, his new book will be available next month: Shortest Way Home

Photos courtesy of Mayor Peter Buttigieg