For many decades of municipal history — amid the ribbon cuttings and council meetings and constituent complaints about trash pickup — generations of small-city mayors have caught their reflection in a City Hall bathroom mirror, taken stock of it all and concluded, consciously or not: That person should probably not be the next president of the United States.
Because such pessimism eluded one of them, Pete Buttigieg, the millennial former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is now a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination, these past several months have inspired a fit of heady introspection for the rest.
It is not quite jealousy, though there is some of that. It is not exactly disbelief, particularly for those who have encountered Mr. Buttigieg, meticulous and striving, during national conferences or other official mayoral bonding exercises through the years.
Mostly, fellow mayors from the population-100,000-or-so set have landed on a kind of grudging respect for the brazenness of the gambit. They did not know that this sort of mega-promotion was available. And, in some cases, they are not entirely sure that it should be.
“It is a little bizarre,” said Mayor Craig Thurmond of Broken Arrow, Okla., a registered Republican who has held the office since 2012. “Politics so often is about ‘Can you win?’ not ‘Are you qualified?’ I do think he has a chance to win. But being the mayor doesn’t qualify you to do that job.”
At about 109,000 residents, Mr. Thurmond added puckishly, Broken Arrow is “a little bigger than South Bend.”
For those inclined toward Mr. Buttigieg, who sits near the top of the polls in early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, a list of equivalently-sized cities can lend jarring context to his experience.
Olathe, Kansas. League City, Texas. Waterbury, Conn. All have populations larger than South Bend’s 102,000.
“My husband sent me a text where he had screen-shotted the population of South Bend and the population of Costa Mesa,” said Mayor Katrina Foley of Costa Mesa, Calif., a Democrat. “Even my son’s friends, they’re always yelling, ‘Katrina for president!’”
Of course, each small city is unique, and many, unlike South Bend, operate under a so-called “weak mayor” system, with a city manager overseeing much of the day-to-day stewardship.
Before leaving office in the new year, Mr. Buttigieg faced his share of major leadership tests, including the fallout last June after a white police sergeant fatally shot a black resident.
Voters also tend to find Mr. Buttigieg compelling for reasons unrelated to the job he held. Supporters cheer his history-making potential as an openly gay contender. They note his Midwestern roots as if they are a kind of electoral superpower, even though South Bend is a Democratic city in a majority Republican state. They cite his military background as a distinguishing résumé line.
“I have more years of government experience under my belt than the president,” Mr. Buttigieg said in March, using a formulation he has repeated often. “I’ve also got more years of executive government experience under my belt than the vice president and more military experience than anybody to walk into that office on Day 1 since George H.W. Bush.”
The 2020 race for the Democratic nomination has supplied ample evidence that Mr. Buttigieg — the cheery young man pitching himself to an often predominantly older audience — has tapped into something more complicated than workaday affection for mayors.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York barely registered as a presidential candidate. Mayor Wayne Messam of Miramar, Fla., home to about 140,000, fared no better. Julián Castro, the former federal housing secretary and San Antonio mayor, left the race in January. Senator Cory Booker, the former Newark mayor, has fallen off the debate stage.
Michael R. Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, is hoping to outrun the trend behind hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money.
If nothing else, peers said, Mr. Buttigieg’s success at the expense of more veteran senators and governors has reinforced their view that citizens understand a local mayor’s job more intuitively than that of a legislator or statewide official.
Several mayors said it was heartening to see their strain of public service magnified in Mr. Buttigieg’s run, listing their own recent civic feats that received considerably less public attention.
“This morning we were talking about getting garbage carts replaced,” Mayor Walt Maddox of Tuscaloosa, Ala., said of his day.
“I drove across town to stand outside the largest sporting good store in Montana,” said Mayor Bill Cole of Billings, Mont. (He was there to read a proclamation.)
“I’m chairing an airplane noise task force,” reported Emily Gabel-Luddy, the mayor of Burbank, Calif., until last month. “It’s called the South San Fernando Valley Airplane Noise Task Force.”
The mayors were divided on whether such deeds were significant qualifications for the presidency, prompting some extended meditations on the very meaning of “qualified.”
In conversations with over a dozen mayors from cities roughly South Bend’s size or slightly larger, two theories seemed most popular.
The first: No one is truly qualified for an office as ungainly as the presidency.
“I don’t think anyone is ever fully prepared,” said Mayor Eric Genrich of Green Bay, Wis., observing that presidents with extensive traditional experience (he named James Buchanan) had often been disastrous while comparatively untested choices (say, Abraham Lincoln) had acquitted themselves quite well.
And this thinking, in turn, appeared to support the more radical premise: Throngs of prospective presidents walk among us at all times.
“We all put our pants on one leg at a time,” Mr. Cole, the Billings mayor, said. “In that sense, there are probably hundreds of thousands, if not several million people, in the United States who are smart and qualified and have the kind of character to be president.”
Some mayors seemed willing to indulge the daydream. Mr. Maddox, from Tuscaloosa, joked that perhaps “we all should just go sign up in the Iowa caucus four years from now.”
Mayor Oliver G. Gilbert III of Miami Gardens, Fla., said the chief argument against a President Gilbert III was Washington’s cold weather. He added that local schoolchildren “always ask” if he is planning to run for the nation’s highest office.
Others have encountered minimal courtship.
“To be the president?” asked Mayor Jim Ardis of Peoria, Ill., comparing the idea to a Single-A minor league baseball player being called up to the majors instantly. “Uhhhhh.”
Perhaps, it was suggested, his constituents had resisted a “Draft Ardis” campaign because they could not bear the thought of him leaving town. Mr. Ardis held for a beat.
“No,” he determined. “I don’t think that’s it.”