“I join you for the first time as a retiree,” Buttigieg quipped after a standing ovation. And he praised the U.S. Conference of Mayors as “that rare body of high-profile elected officials, from all states and from both parties, who concentrate on getting things done — and actually like each other."
Critics have derided the 38-year-old for having a limited resume, topped by his eight years running a city of about 100,000. But at a time when many of his leading rivals are members of a gridlocked U.S. Senate, which has passed little substantive legislation in recent years, Buttigieg is trying to turn that into a strength while championing his own candidacy as a symbol of generational change.
“When I'm asked about the fact that I come not from one of our great global cities, but from a mid-sized community in the middle industrial Midwest, the so-called Rust Belt, I say, 'That's very much part of the point,'" he said.
Buttigieg often references his municipal experience on the campaign trail. With the Iowa caucuses a week and a half away, he's leaning into that further. He visibly brightened when a man stood up during a Q&A at a campaign stop in Keokuk, a struggling Mississippi River town of 10,000, to ask how residents were expected to pay for a $77 million project to separate storm and waste water.
“I’ve been waiting for months for someone to ask a sewer separation question,” Buttigieg replied with a grin. At the mayors conference on Thursday, many nodded when he highlighted the demands of the job, a front-line position where constituents have far less tolerance for excuses and inaction.
“As a mayor, as a leader, you most earn your paycheck in those moments ... when the need arises for you to call a divided community to its highest shared values," Buttigieg said. “If that's true of mayors, that's particularly true of the presidency."
It's not the first time, either, that he's sought a spotlight at the conference. One year ago, Buttigieg launched his presidential campaign with a news conference in a windowless room at the conference.
He's not alone in seeking the validation of mayors, either. On Wednesday, billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg used his speech at the event to unveil an $850 billion infrastructure plan — and take aim at President Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump has made promise after promise on infrastructure. What has he delivered? Nothing,” Bloomberg said. “There seems to be only one construction project he cares about. And it’s a border wall that’s a political gimmick — and a costly one.”
Yet in terms of crowd size and reaction, Buttigieg was the apparent darling. And many of the younger mayors likely saw their reflection in Buttigieg. “There's a generational shift going on all across American politics. It's going from baby boomer to millennials," said Albuquerque, New Mexico, Mayor Timothy Keller, who is part of Generation X. “This is just the beginning. There's a 20-year gap between politicians who have been there a long time and folks who are hungry and chomping at the bit for something different. And in the next 10 years, they are going to collide head-to-head in pretty much every election of America."
This story has been corrected to reflect that Bloomberg's remarks to the conference were on Wednesday, not Tuesday.
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report from Keokuk, Iowa.
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”