Crazy about ‘Maltese’ Pete: basking in the success of the Maltese-American presidential hopeful

Is the US presidential race going to be upset by the 37-year-old son of a Maltese immigrant? MaltaToday asks election watchers about the media sensation that is ‘Mayor Pete’ Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg: US presidential candidate, Mayor of South Bend, a former naval intelligence officer, Harvard graduate, openly gay and, as it happens, Maltese-American.

Now the dark horse of the Democratic race for presidential nominee is taking the media by storm, with appearances on major chat shows, fending off unfriendly questions on Fox Network, even suffering a lampooning on Saturday Night Live.

In Malta, Buttigieg is now a regular on Facebook feeds for avid followers of international politics and US politics. And as his star rises, and more Americans start getting the pronunciation of his last name correct, could the island be set for some Pete-fever as the Democratic race heats up?

Now he is being touted as one of a number of potential candidates who could shake things up in the forthcoming race to take Trump out of the White House, joining the likes of former Democratic representative Beto O’ Rourke, 46, or Julian Castro, the 44-year-old former San Antonio mayor.

The novelty would be how these candidates are the product of a radically diverse generation: Castro would become the first Latino to win his party’s nomination, but Buttigieg – who married his husband last year – would be the first openly gay nominee from a major political party.

The Washington Post seems to think there’s something about Buttigieg: “‘normal’ and ‘regular’ are not adjectives that apply to the son of a Maltese immigrant father [the late Prof. Joseph Buttigeg] and an Army brat mom who grew up in decaying South Bend, got himself into Harvard, summer-interned for Ted Kennedy, worked for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, won a Rhodes Scholarship, learned Arabic in Tunisia, landed a jet-setting consultant’s job, left it to return to his beat-up hometown and become the youngest mayor of a midsize U.S.

city, transformed that city into a national model of renewal, and then — deep breath — volunteered for active duty in Afghanistan while serving as mayor, came out as gay in the local newspaper, married a schoolteacher live on YouTube, turned heads in a dark-horse bid to lead the Democratic National Committee, and had the New York Times’s Frank Bruni gushing about him as potentially the ‘First Gay President’— all by age 37.”

“It goes without saying that Pete’s fan base has grown in Malta due to his Maltese connections,” University of Malta public policy expert George Vital Zammit says. “We always take pride in Maltese people who have made it abroad, and having a presidential candidate with a Maltese surname is certainly not common.

“Mayor Pete, as he likes to be called, is a viable candidate who is presenting an alternative narrative to the current Trump administration. At only 37, he has made age an asset rather than a liability, having had army experience and been a mayor of South Bend for seven years.”

Zammit says Buttigieg does not only come with a story, but also with his style. “He rarely flips and unlike most of the other candidates, comes with a clean sheet.”

Janet Barthet, who crossed over the Atlantic to campaign for Hillary Clinton in her race against Donald Trump, says Pete’s success since announcing his exploratory committee for the presidential race, has been quite substantial.

“I do believe we’re inflating Mayor Pete’s success locally because he’s Maltese. However, he really is polling well following a couple of high-profile TV interviews. His support shot up from 0 to 11% in just three months, which I think is significant given that the only public office he’s occupied so far, is mayor of a relatively small city in Indiana.”

In fact, Barthet believes that he actually stands a chance of clinching the presidency in 2020.

“If we’ve learnt anything from recent elections and referenda, from Obama’s performance in 2008 to the Brexit referendum in 2016, and Trump’s even bigger surprise election in 2016, despite most major media and polls predicting otherwise, we should know by now that a lot can happen, even in 24 hours.”

Buttigieg’s late father Joseph translated Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks into English and maintained close contact with academic and political circles in Malta.

Vice Rector and Professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Malta, Carmen Sammut told MaltaToday that she remembers colleagues speaking to Pete Buttigieg on one occasion. “A young colleague who happens to be acquainted with him once confided that it was through Pete that he had first heard of Barack Obama. He remembers asking who would elect someone who goes by the name of Barack Obama,” Sammut said.

“It now seems that Obama has expressed support for Pete just when many Americans are asking about who would vote for someone whose surname we cannot even pronounce. For a microstate like Malta, the fact that a Maltese-American has made it this far is in itself historic and the interest is obvious.

“There is a proximity that engages us. Until recently, Malta was a land of emigration and we love to bask in the success of Maltese descendants,” she said.

But George Vital Zammit is more circumspect about Buttigieg’s prospects. For one, he sees Buttigieg’s strong political deliveries are not enough to improve his odds.

“Campaigning for the Presidency takes almost two years. Following initial announcement and endorsements, each candidate goes through the Primaries and Caucuses to win delegates’ approval. Unlike fellow democrats, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, Pete is a long shot.

“What will be crucial is his ability to raise funding and connect with the American people. Strong political arguments are not enough.”

Zammit adds that Buttigieg has been shining in a crowded contest like the Democratic Party, mainly because he speaks of changing the way Washington works, which resonates on the mainland.

But he warns against allowing Pete’s homosexuality to dictate his rhetoric.

“He is championing freedom and liberty as the essential pillars of democracy, but he will be making a huge mistake if he lets his sexuality dominate what he is about – his stance on civil rights will not be welcome in some of the Republican states. I also see him standing a very good chance on being a ticket with older candidates,” he said.

That could mean seeing Mayor Pete as vice-presidential nominee with big ticket names such as Bernie Sanders perhaps – a progressive dream team?

Prof. Sammut says that although it is still early days for Buttigieg, the young candidate is appealing to discerning democrats.  “These include the way in which he contrasts with Trump in terms of preparation. He is refreshing in that he is not divisive. He sounds more sober and less angry… he is clever and clear in the way he articulates his arguments.

“There is also his appeal to the millennials such as when he stated that he looks at the world through the windshield not from the rear-view mirror, which is what the world needs if important issues like climate change are to be tackled.”

Barthet adds that despite her own reservations on Buttigieg, the media seems to love him, “even though this might be a cynical fondness based on viewership and clicks….

“Whilst a conversation starter may have been his difficult-to-pronounce surname, I think well-established and respectable media houses are pleased that an openly gay new kid on the block could give the political elite on both sides a run for all of their money.”

As Zammit notes, talk show hosts take a genuine interest in his story and have enabled him to grow his popularity. “He comes across as smart and articulate, and has a taken on some of the most pressing issues, from healthcare to the economy, from foreign policy to civil rights. His trademark, rolled up sleeves, tie and no blazer, are now emblematic of youthfulness, change and renewal. The media has given him a pass up to now, but that might change at the first blunder or slip up,” he said.