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South Bend Mayor improvises as the power goes out at his rally in Sparks High School, in Sparks, Nevada. (Photo by Harrison Blackman)

When the power went out on Mayor Pete in Sparks, Nevada

Though Buttigieg electrified a Nevada audience, the electric grid had other plans

Harrison Blackman
Sep 29, 2019 · 6 min read

On September 28, 2019, the day Pete Buttigieg visited Northern Nevada, the temperature dropped from 64º to 41º F in a matter of hours. Dark clouds loomed over the lip of the Sierras. Winds blustered around this edge of the Great Basin, signaling that Northern Nevada’s brief autumn was in fact over — winter, rather, was already here. If the climate was any indication, then Nevada’s caucus — February 22, 2020, the third Democratic primary contest — felt just around the corner.

Sparks, a city neighboring and bleeding into Reno, is probably not the Northern Nevada locale you’d expect the South Bend, Indiana mayor to focus his efforts. While Reno is gathering tech and hipster steam, Sparks retains a suburban feel, with more retirees and a quainter scale than the gaudiness of Reno’s aging casino infrastructure.

So it was fitting that Mayor Buttigieg made his appearance at Sparks High School, home of the “Railroaders.” Within the brick walls of the high school gym, a stage was set up — a stool and metal water bottle the only objects on display in front of the juxtaposed Star-Spangled Banner and “Battle Born” flags. In one corner, the pep band squeakily played the Rocky theme, until the campaign evidently wanted to play Hall & Oates, and the student band took a break.

Meanwhile a steady stream of visitors marched inside, mostly gray-haired, wearing Patagonias, flannels and hiking boots wet from the rain. As the event drew closer to commencing, younger people arrived, too. Sparks is 75% white, and the crowd looked it. Most of the diversity came in the shades of baseball caps, ranging from those in support of Obama, the Los Angeles Dodgers, or the Yuba River.

Thus far, Mayor Pete has failed to draw significant support from black and other minority voters — in Nevada, he’s polling at 2% of the nonwhite vote. He wasn’t going to change that in Sparks, but the problem was visible from the gym hardcourt.

Last spring, Buttigieg stole the air out of Beto O’Rourke’s campaign — both youthful white moderates — and now, with Biden’s campaign faltering and entangled with President Trump’s impeachment inquiry, Buttigieg has the opportunity to soak up Biden’s position as the leading moderate of the race. But can a young, gay, relatively-inexperienced candidate really command the electorate come November 2020? For many, this is the critical question.

By time the gym was suitably packed — with observers sitting at the top of the retracted bleachers — the show finally began.

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Pete Buttigieg draws celebrity fandom in Sparks, Nevada. (Photo by Harrison Blackman)

When Mayor Pete ascended the stage, the crowd went crazy. “This moment is about even more than the presidency,” Buttigieg said, “although, this presidency has got to come to an end for the good of the republic.”

Drifting energetically across the stage, he incited cheers from the crowd with each carefully-executed phrase. In the audience, signs were everywhere — some featuring Mayor Pete’s face, a visage that President Trump has mocked as evocative of Alfred E. Neuman.

Buttigieg took his opening moments to contrast himself with the incumbent — he addressed the economy, gun control, climate change, his cheekily-named “Medicare-for-all-who-want-it” plan. Sometimes, these comparisons were humorous. “When I think about what patriotism calls for, it’s not hugging the flag, literally,” Buttigieg said. “It’s about recognizing the flag — it belongs to all of us.”

At this point, Buttigieg only made one allusion to the impeachment inquiry, but it packed a punch. He declared “that blowing the whistle on an act of misconduct is an act of loyalty to the republic for which it stands.” A surge of cheers crested over Buttigieg’s voice. A discernible human form of electricity pulsed through the air. In that little gymnasium, Buttigieg’s stump speech was extraordinarily effective. The small-city mayor certainly channeled the right charisma to captivate a small-town audience.

Besides contrasting himself vis-à-vis Trump, he also painted himself as a moderate to counter his more left-leaning Democratic competitors. “They’re gonna say socialism this, socialism that, no matter what we do,” Buttigieg said. “Just remember that if I’m your nominee, they’ll be trying to make that argument — about someone who came from the private sector and harbored the private sector in the city of South Bend.”

If Democrats are to be cast by Republicans as the party of Washington, Buttigieg emphasized:

“They’ll have to do it against someone who doesn’t work in Washington, works in the heart of the industrial Midwest, works every day to make sure we actually get problems solved, so we can get to Washington to look a little more like our cities and towns, not the other way around.”

In a peak moment of humor, Buttigieg characterized his potential administration as follows: “It’s a presidency, when you turn on the news, and see what’s going on in the White House, your blood pressure actually notches down a little bit.”

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Buttigieg mocks Trump’s habit of ‘flag-hugging.’ (Photo by Harrison Blackman).

After these rhetorical flourishes, Buttigieg transitioned into a “bowl of questions” segment, with his staffer drawing audience questions from a fishbowl.

After each question was read, Buttigieg would turn around the room and ask if the person who had written the question was present. They didn’t always present themselves.

The faux-“Town Hall” style of the format backfired a little in that question after question tended to be on the same topic — in this case, climate change. But after Buttigieg addressed his climate policy (carbon neutral by 2050 and quadrupling investment in renewable energy) the first time, he had to pivot to other topics when he got the same question repeatedly.

Still, many questions remained by the time he got around to discussing potential reforms to the judiciary — when the lights went out.

The mic went dead and shouts of dismay cascaded around the room which had suddenly been plunged in darkness.

Had the winds knocked down the power lines? Had the school’s circuit blown a fuse? Was something more terrible happening?

Buttigieg, war veteran, played it cool.

“This is how we used to do politics in the old days!” Buttigieg shouted, before attempting to continue. Attendees held up their cellphones in flashlight mode like at a rock concert. The show continued, to more applause than ever before.

Finally, his staffers advised Buttigieg to wrap it up. Following his departure, the crowd dissipated slowly, the lights still out, as if in a dream.

When they walked outside, it was snowing — the first snow in Sparks this year. The Nevadans had seen Mayor Pete. Perhaps they wanted more — but the electric grid had seen enough of him.

This is the third essay in a creative nonfiction (opinion) series about presidential candidates visiting the Reno area. You can read the second post, about Bernie Sanders’ September 2019 visit to UNR, here, and the first, about Beto O’Rourke’s April visit to Bibo Coffee, here.

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Attendees of the Buttigieg rally exit into a September snow shower. (Photo by Harrison Blackman)

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