Mayor Pete: Documentary about Buttigieg’s Historic Run as the First Openly Gay Presidential Candidate

Pete Buttigieg’s historical run for the White House, as an openly gay and serious contender for a major party nomination, is a recurring theme in Jesse Moss’ new and timely documentary, simply titled Mayor Pete.

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg official photo.jpg

Official portrait, 2021

World-premiering at the Chicago Film Festival, Mayor Pete will stream on Amazon Prime on November 12, to commemorate the first year since the crucial elections of 2020.

Director Moss, whose credits include Boys State and Rated ‘R’: Republicans in Hollywood, makes a point of noting that he did not endorse Buttigieg in the presidential election. Instead, he would rather see his film as a personal story as much as a political one.

“We think of politics and we think of former President Donald Trump, of being essentially reality show entertainer, and that is not Pete,” Moss said “We were allowed access through his relationship with Chasten, which is so central to who he is and was at the core of his campaign. These two people holding on to each other as a married couple, both an old-fashioned couple but also a gay couple and very new in modern politics.”

Buttigieg continues to make history as a politician. In February, he became the first openly gay person confirmed to a Cabinet seat, after President Biden nominated him to lead the Transportation Department.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

When asked if he believes the revelations found in Mayor Pete will impact Buttigieg’s political future, Moss said, “I think we’ll have to wait and see.” He elaborated: “Anything is possible,” and what we know is presidential politics is pretty unpredictable.”

Born on January 19, 1982, Buttigieg boasts impressive educational credits, as a graduate of Harvard College and Oxford University. From 2009 to 2017, he was an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve. He was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months in 2014. Before being elected as Mayor of South Bend in 2011, Buttigieg worked on the political campaigns of Democrats, such as John Kerry.

While serving as South Bend’s mayor, Buttigieg came out as a gay man in 2015.  He married his husband, Chasten Glezman, a school teacher and writer, in June 2018.

Buttigieg launched his campaign for the presidential election on April 14, 2019. Despite initially low expectations, he gained some momentum when he participated in town hall meetings and television debates. Buttigieg narrowly won the Iowa caucuses and placed a close second in the New Hampshire primary. By winning Iowa, he became the first openly gay candidate to win a presidential primary or caucus.

Buttigieg eventually bowed out of the race, helping clear the way for the most popular Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. President Biden then named Buttigieg as his Secretary of Transportation. When his nomination was confirmed, on February 2, 2021, he became the first openly gay Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. At age 38, he also became the youngest Cabinet secretary in the Biden administration.

Moss said that his films aimed at “taking the viewers behind the scenes of Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, chronicling the highs, the lows, and the many personal moments in between—some painful, other joyful.”

The result is a rather intimate look at the various pressures Buttigieg has faced–and continues to face—in his emergence as national LGBTQ figure, his bond with Chasten, all the while projecting a sense that he hasn’t given up completely his desire to be the first gay American president one day.

In a scene before the first Democratic debate in Miami, Moss captures the challenge that Buttigieg’s aides have in getting him to show stronger personal engagement with the audience, be more emotional, more relatable. During a prep session, communications advisor Lis Smith notes that David Axelrod, the CNN analyst who served as former President Barack Obama’s chief strategist, had been critical of Buttigieg’s “detached demeanor.”

As is well known, Buttigieg decided to return home from the campaign trail to call an important meeting after South Bend police officer Ryan O’Neill fatally shot Eric Logan. Axelord described the mayor’s as “too calm, cool, collected” during the town hall, considering that the forum featured emotionally charged pleas from residents, and highlighted criticisms about Buttigieg’s relationship with African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities.

“In the current situation, this is proving to be your greatest weakness,” Smith tells Buttigieg bluntly. “And with this debate, so much of it is going to be, ‘are you connecting with people? Are you saying things that project the right kind of warmth that people are especially craving right now?’”

After Buttigieg rehearses how he would answer a question about the Logan shooting, Smith tells him again, rather boldly, “It sounded a bit wishy-washy,” before asking most staffers to leave the room so they can work on feedback. Smith thinks that “When he goes up there, he’s got to show more life, more conviction, because he’s coming across like the ‘Tin Man’ up there.”

Smith’s point is a common theme in the documentary feature– can Buttigieg come off as relatable? Can he show more emotion, in and out of crisis situations? Buttigieg has at one too many times struggled to find the right balance.

In one scene, he is sitting in the kitchen and talking to the camera: “One of the things they say I’ve got going for me is authenticity, right? So the last thing I want is to do or say is something that’s not me, just in order to satisfy some desire to be more emotional.”

Buttigieg then considers the huge impact of television on political campaigns: “It may sound as a paradox, but it’s important to connect on emotional level and not be in your head too much. And yet, in my way of coming at the world, the stronger an emotion is, the more private it is.”

In another telling scene, Buttigieg and Chasten express their wish for the campaign to have broad appeal, while also inspiring the increasingly big and vocal LGBTQ community. We see the couple attend the Victory Fund dinner, the LGBTQ rights group’s annual fundraiser, where Buttigieg delivered the keynote adress on April 8, 2019.

Buttigieg confessed to his audience how ashamed he was to realize he was gay as a youth, and how it “launched in me something that I can only describe as a war.” “If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would have swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water,” he tells the crowd, “But thank God there was no pill.”

Moss devotes significant time to Chasten, who went on to become a star in his own right during the campaign. “In Pete’s case,” Moss says, “Chasten’s presence was a huge plus, whch Pete did not realize early on, Nut gradually learned how to accept it, and even use it to his own advantage. Indeed, Throughout the documentary, Chasten is “constant factor,” as Moss said. He is shown in public forums and at campaign events, but also in private moments with Pete, relaxing in their living room, preparing a meal together in the kitchen.

Chasteen says in voice-over narration. “Early on in our relationship, I would say, ‘What’s going on in that head of yours?’ because Pete has grown a lot in being able to verbalize and be more articulate. He’s learned how to allow personal narrative to have more of an impact, in a stump speech or policy, as well as in our personal relationship.”

“Chasten had different role than I did and we had to figure that out as we went,” Pete says over video of his husband visiting a teen LGBTQ camp in Iowa. “The challenge from the get-go was how to be honest and proud, and yet how to do it without swallowing who I was, or what our campaign was about.”

Near the end, a downtrodden Buttigieg is seen in a hotel room as he is forced to acknowledge the reality that he won’t win the Democratic nomination for president.

Still, Mayor Pete closes with Buttigieg leaving the door open for another run in the future. “I don’t know,” he says. “I might be, and that’s really something. I know that I only got so far, but then again, not a lot of people get as far as I had.”