SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Joining a bevy of experienced contenders, including a popular California senator, Pete Buttigieg landed in Sacramento last fall as an underdog looking for a spark in a state ready for a leading role in the Democratic presidential primary.
The young, ambitious, former small city mayor – lacking the reputation or framework needed to compete in the nation’s largest state – emerged on stage on a cloudless Sunday afternoon, stunned by the thousands crammed in a local brewery just to meet “Mayor Pete.”
Buttigieg re-emerged Friday in Sacramento five months later an ascending Democratic Party star, equipped with momentum and potential needed to win California and potentially the White House.
“California, I believe you can make me the next president of the United States,” Buttigieg said during a campaign speech.
Inside Cesar Chavez Plaza, named after the civil rights icon that organized and helped secure labor rights for California farmworkers in the 1960s, Buttigieg for over 30 minutes pitched California voters preparing to vote with 13 other states in next month’s Super Tuesday.
The Navy veteran ripped President Donald Trump for pardoning “war criminals,” called for raising the minimum wage, outlined strategies to “dismantle” racism, spoke in Spanish and called the southern border wall “dumb,” while touting his record as mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
On the heels of winning in Iowa and a second place finish in New Hampshire, Buttigieg asked the crowd if it was ready for the “sweet Sacramento sunrise when Donald Trump is no longer in the White House.”
“President Pete! President Pete!,” the crowd bayed back.
Buttigieg is looking to strike while the iron is hot in the Golden State where over 20 million people have registered to vote in the March 3 primary. For the first time since 2008, California and its nearly 500 delegates will be up for grabs early in the primary process.
Sacramento resident Joe Estena, 44, says Buttigieg has become a household name over the last few months, particularly after his close victory over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in Iowa.
“Pete has the momentum, we had to see him in person,” the undecided Estena said. “He’s relatable to many in this area and state.”
Stephanie Holmes travelled from the San Francisco Bay Area and said she is split between Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden. Registered without a party, she appreciates that Buttigieg is a veteran and feels he can cut through partisanship in Washington D.C.
The evening rally capped two days of campaigning in neighboring Nevada and California, as Buttigieg held a town hall Thursday night in Las Vegas and a private fundraiser in San Francisco Friday morning. Buttigieg has a fundraiser scheduled Saturday morning in Seattle before returning to Las Vegas for a pair of speaking engagements.
Buttigieg isn’t leaving the Golden State empty-handed as on Thursday he picked up the endorsement of California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis. While many of the state’s high-profile Democrats have yet to endorse a candidate still in the race, including Governor Gavin Newsom and Senator Kamala Harris, the state’s first female lieutenant governor says she’s “all in for Pete.”
“He has brought energy to his campaign, energy you need when you’re running across the United States,” Kounalakis said. “Energy, my friends, that he needs when he goes into the White House to serve as our next president.”
On behalf of its 900,000 members, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ civil rights group also recently endorsed the Navy veteran. Equality California said it was proud to support the openly-gay Buttigieg, saying his candidacy has “already had a transformational impact on the LGBTQ community.”
“While we did not endorse Mayor Pete simply because he’s gay, the historic nature of his candidacy has already had a transformational impact on the LGBTQ community,” Equality executive director Rick Zbur said. “Electing the first openly LGBTQ president will send a message to millions of LGBTQ youth across the country that no dreams are too big and no leadership position is too high.”
The presidential hopeful also told a Valentine’s Day story to the estimated crowd of over 3,000 gathered a few blocks from the state Capitol.
With dusk approaching and street lamps lighting the plaza’s perimeter, Buttigieg, 38, recounted meeting his husband off a dating app.
“First I saw these eyes, this smile that I just had to see in person. So I swiped right,” Buttigieg said, noting that his husband is “going to make an amazing first gentleman.”
Pundits are warning of Buttigieg’s lack of presumed support with black and minority voters, but he said Friday that he was striving to diversify his base through a self-coined “Douglass Plan.” The plank focuses on criminal justice reforms, improving access to credit for the black community and opening up federal contracts to minority-owned businesses.
Buttigieg told the crowd he doesn’t think of black voters as a “monolithic community.”
“There are a lot of different experiences that make up the black experience in America,” Buttigieg said.
According to the Sacramento Bee’s candidate tracker, Friday’s rally-town hall was Buttigieg’s 25th campaign appearance in California, second to Sanders with 33.
A recent poll, taken before the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, pegged Buttigieg in 4th place and well behind the 15% threshold needed to secure California delegates. A new statewide poll is expected to be released next week while mail-in ballots have already been sent to millions of state voters.
But with millions of Californians having already received ballots in the mail, the fact remains the Midwestern small city mayor is leading the pack in the only thing that matters at this point: delegates.
“I now stand before you at the head of an unlikely campaign, leading in the race for delegates to the Democratic nomination,” Buttigieg said. “So much depends on what happens next, and so much depends on what happens when the future-oriented, forward looking, racially diverse, justice-minded state of California has its say.”