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At NU, Buttigieg has a message for the young: Get involved

Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks on Northeastern Campus
Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks on Northeastern Campus

Pete Buttigieg was fielding questions from a swarm of reporters about charter schools, what it’s like to run as a gay candidate, and Joe Biden’s behavior with women when he finally stumbled through an answer. After a few exchanges with one of his questioners, he gave up, his linguistic abilities exhausted.

“Sorry,” the South Bend, Ind., mayor said to a reporter questioning him in a foreign language. “I’m out of Italian.”

Buttigieg, the 37-year-old polyglot — he is conversational or fluent in seven languages — took his unlikely quest for the Democratic presidential nomination to Northeastern University on Wednesday. Speaking to an audience of more than 1,100, he positioned himself as the voice of a younger generation and urged his youthful audience to get involved.

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“The reason they don’t respond to the policy preferences of young people is because they’re not afraid of young people,” he said of other political leaders. “They will be if you fire them.”

Barely a blip a few months ago, Buttigieg has surged into the Democratic Party’s consciousness in recent weeks, following a widely praised appearance at a CNN town hall. He reported raising $7 million in the first quarter of the year and has drawn waves of national exposure in a field with better-known names like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, and Kamala Harris.

College students on 10 Massachusetts campuses have begun organizing under the local chapter of Students For Pete, according to Matt O’Brien, a Suffolk University junior who’s helping to organize the effort.

“He represents the stereotypical breath of fresh air,” said O’Brien, who attended Buttigieg’s discussion Wednesday with Kimberly Atkins, senior news correspondent at WBUR-FM.

The sudden explosion in support has shocked the political establishment.

Pete Buttigieg spoke at Northeastern University on Wednesday.
Pete Buttigieg spoke at Northeastern University on Wednesday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

He is mayor of a Midwestern city with a smaller population than Dorchester’s. If elected, he would be the youngest president in US history. News anchors and voters are still fumbling the pronunciation of his last name. (It’s BOOT-edge-edge).

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But supporters say they’re drawn to both to his unusual profile — he’s a Rhodes scholar and former consultant at McKinsey & Co. who served in Afghanistan and is married to a man — and what they describe as a straightforward delivery of a progressive message.

Steven Leibowitz, 61, said he drove from his home in Brewster to hear Buttigieg speak, and that he has already had begun converting friends into supporters.

“They’ve said, ‘God help me, I’ve never contributed to a presidential candidate before,’ ” Leibowitz said. “He’s doing some things differently and is talking about issues in a way Democrats haven’t talked about in the past.”

On Wednesday, Buttigieg discussed his religion — he’s a practicing Episcopalian — and described how his constituents reacted when he came out as gay. (“Inconveniently, that was in the middle of a reelection campaign, when Mike Pence was governor,” he joked.) He spoke about the underbelly of an economy that he said is leaving many people behind.

“We’ve been doing great for a long time, and that’s not something we can take lightly,” he said. “But . . . as that upswing has happened, even as the proverbial rising tide rose for basically as long as I’ve been alive, most boats did not.”

Buttigieg said millennials are naturally skeptical of the notion that if the economy grows, “everything else will take care of itself,” he said.

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“As the generation that’s poised to be the first in American history to be worse off than our parents, we’re insisting that we get a better answer on how our economy is going to be more just and more equitable,” he said.

Calling on young people to join the political fight, Buttigieg pointed to climate change, on which he said there’s no debate, “because one side’s committed to the idea that we don’t even need a plan, which is nuts.”

“If you care about that, then you have to hold elected officials responsible,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re going to keep doing what they’re doing.”

During a session punctuated by cheers, the loudest came when Buttigieg called for eliminating the Electoral College, which he said was a “dumb idea.” An hour before Buttigieg was to speak, a line of people snaked from the auditorium’s doorway and through the adjacent courtyard along Huntington Avenue. He also chatted with state Senator Michael Rodrigues, the Senate’s chairman of Ways and Means, in a hallway before he took the stage. During the discussion period, dozens rushed to the aisle for the chance to ask a question.

Emerson Toomey, an 18-year-old Northeastern University freshman, said that as a Chicago native she’s had a closer seat to watching Buttigieg operate as a mayor, but was interested to hear his ideas as a candidate.

“He’s presenting himself as the millennial candidate, so I think it will be really interesting to get more insight into what exactly that means to him,” Toomey said. “He’s 37. I think it’s important to keep in mind the people who are going to be impacted for the next couple generations.”

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Several on hand said that they’re at last open to considering Buttigieg in the crowded field. He’s scheduled to visit New Hampshire over two days later this week.

“Hands-down, I love Elizabeth Warren,” said Melissa Lin, 34, of Medford. “But we also need to adjust for the fact that she’s been able to pave the way, just as Bernie Sanders did, for a lot of previously radical ideas. Now the progressive platform has become so mainstream, it’s important for us to keep our eyes open for new fresh ideas.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com.Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.