Pete Buttigieg scrambles to turn buzz to momentum

Published 7:20 am Tuesday, April 23, 2019

MANCHESTER, N.H.  — There are no policy positions on his website. He has virtually no paid presence in the states that matter most. And his campaign manager is a high school friend with no experience in presidential politics.

This is the upstart campaign of Pete Buttigieg , the 37-year-old Indiana mayor who has suddenly become one of the hottest names in the Democrats’ presidential primary season. Yet there is an increasing urgency, inside and outside the campaign, that his moment may pass if he doesn’t take swift action to build a national organization capable of harnessing the energy he’ll need to sustain his surge in the nine months or so before the first votes are cast.

“I get more inquiries on how to reach him or his campaign than anyone else,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said, adding that he’s aware of just one part-time Buttigieg staffer in the state to help coordinate the requests.

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“This is what it’s like when you’re having your moment,” Buckley said. “Whether he can capitalize — that’s his challenge.”

Indeed, it’s far from certain that Buttigieg, a gay former military officer, will continue to stand out in a contest that features political heavyweights like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to launch his candidacy later this week. Aware of the daunting road ahead, Buttigieg’s team is plowing forward with an ambitious push to expand his operation, attract new campaign cash and pound the airwaves with virtually every media opportunity available.

In an interview, Buttigieg conceded that his supporters across the country have essentially had to “organize themselves” so far.

“We need to make sure we have the organizational strengths to sustain this wave of support that we’ve been getting for the last almost month and a half now,” he said. “It’s created some challenges to rise this far this fast, but I would put those in the category of a good problem to have.”

Federal filings suggest the campaign had little more than a dozen paid staffers at the end of last month. Buttigieg’s paid presence now exceeds 30, according to campaign manager Mike Schmuhl, who said it’ll be closer to 50 by the end of the month.

Most of the team is based in South Bend, Indiana, while a handful of staffers work from shared “We Work” office space in Chicago and a few others are based in Iowa and New Hampshire. Buttigieg plans to expand his presence in Iowa and New Hampshire and hire paid staff in South Carolina, Nevada and California in the coming weeks.

Still, don’t expect the Democratic mayor of South Bend to create a giant campaign apparatus in line with Warren, Sanders or even New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Buttigieg has the money to build a large organization after raising more than $7 million last quarter, but the core of the near-term campaign strategy hinges on an aggressive fundraising schedule and a say-yes-to-almost-everything media strategy backed by strong debate performances.

Schmuhl said the campaign doesn’t have national political consultants on the payroll, and it’s unclear if it ever will.

“We want to build a campaign that’s a little disruptive, kind of entrepreneurial. Right now, it feels like a startup,” said Schmuhl, who first met Buttigieg in high school and later ran former Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly’s 2010 congressional campaign before reconnecting with Buttigieg.