John A. Carlos II

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses the South Carolina Democratic convention at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center on June 22, 2019. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

“Hey, this is Pete.”

That was the simple greeting that South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Butigieg offered a Free Times reporter during an Aug. 18 phone call. Buttigieg is one of the roughly two dozen Democratic candidates for president who have been working to build support in early-voting South Carolina, which will have its Democratic presidential preference primary on Feb. 29.

Buttigieg stormed through parts of South Carolina during the weekend, visiting Beaufort, Charleston, Hartsville and elsewhere. A key part of the weekend for Buttigieg was discussion of his plans for rural America, including initiatives in economic development, public education, broadband expansion and more.

Between stump speeches, Buttigieg took time to phone Free Times to talk about some of those issues. He also addressed some of President Donald Trump’s incendiary rhetoric on race, and talked about navigating a primary race with more than 20 candidates involved. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Free Times: You have been rolling out your rural plan. Public education is always a hot topic in South Carolina, and I know you have talked about addressing teachers shortages here. How would you go about doing that?

Pete Buttigieg: Part of it has to do with compensation. I believe we need to apply a major increase in funds directed at Title I schools for the purpose of increasing compensation that will attract more people to teach, in general, but especially in the most underserved areas. Another thing thing we can do is expand what are called “Grow Your Own” programs, which encourage community members to become teachers, with professional development while they are still going through school.

We also aim to invest a great deal in HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. There’s an underrepresentation in minorities in teaching, and if we target funds in the right way, it will help us with a teacher shortage there, as well.

Your rural plan also calls for an $80 billion broadband expansion for underserved communities. How important is that for the rural areas of South Carolina, and elsewhere?

That takes us back to education. There are a lot of homework assignments that could be difficult to complete without Internet access. But it goes to so many more areas, from health to business, where you just need to be online.

So, we are proposing an $80 billion commitment to make sure every American is able to get broadband, mainly through the expansion of fiber, but also wireless, where it looks like that is the best solution. We can largely fund it just by unlocking some of the spectrum that the government already controls access to, and probably get about half the revenue needed to fund that investment.

The Internet is no longer optional. It’s part of infrastructure, just like roads and bridges and water. We have to make sure rural areas get access to it if they are going to be able to get ahead and survive and thrive in this century.

In South Carolina, we’ve seen population growth in recent years, but a lot of that has been in the Charleston and Columbia and Greenville areas. How can we unlock some economic development in rural areas to bring them along?

Part of it is a job growth strategy and part of it is having a direct population growth strategy. In addition to making sure that we fund regional innovation clusters that pursue regional economic development, and putting some credible dollars behind that, as well as helping veterans grow small businesses and other measures that will help on the job creation side, a lot of it is just finding more people. In fact, that is often what employers are looking at when they are deciding where to locate and where to expand.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve proposed community renewal visas. The idea is that, if a community wants to grow its population partly through welcoming immigrants and the newest Americans, then they could get an allocation of visas that would allow them to have people on the fast track for a green card if they commit to living in one of these areas for a certain amount of time.

You come from a municipal background as the mayor of South Bend. How could that experience inform your insight into what’s going in at the city and county level across the country?

It’s one of the reasons another feature in our rural economy plan is a simple process for small communities to apply for federal help with a common application and something that is easier to navigate. It’s just one thing I’ve noticed in my experience in local government.

You know, when you are a mayor, you are on the hook for results. You don’t get by just by saying things that sound good. You’re held accountable for everything that works and everything that doesn’t in your community. I think that voice is especially needed, as people have grown pretty frustrated with the United States Congress, and they are looking for a doer to come into the Oval Office.

I saw an interview where you said voting for Donald Trump is “at best” looking the other way on racism. Do you believe that the president’s rhetoric has gone too far?

When you see the exact language of the president echoed in the manifesto of the white nationalist terrorist in [El Paso,] Texas, it’s as big a warning sign as there can be.

Now, I think that his message to voters is, ‘Hey, you ought to look the other way on all of the racial stuff, the bad example I’m setting for kids and all the chaos; you ought to look the other way on that if you don’t like it and still vote with me, because I’m creating jobs.’ But if you actually look at the numbers, he’s creating jobs at a slower rate than President Obama did. And right now, with a recession nipping at our heels, there’s very little in the way of solutions coming from this White House. They are mostly concentrated on telling you who to blame.

There are about two dozen Democratic candidates in the field currently, and it’s August 2019. How do you balance running hard and also knowing it’s a marathon?

This is very much a marathon and I think some people are weighing whether to stay in through the late summer into the fall. But, we’re obviously in a position to go all the way here. The important thing about pacing is to recognize that it’s not just about sending me around the country and making sure that I’m engaging with people, especially in these early [voting] states, but also building the ground game and the organizers that are going to be there whether I’m in the state on any given day or not.

So, we’ve got about three dozen and growing in terms of our ground game in South Carolina, and the relationship-building they are going to be doing every day between now and when the voting begins, I think it’s going to be every bit as important as the opportunities I get to come here in-person.

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