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When Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg takes the debate stage Tuesday in Detroit, he may see some local and unusually friendly faces in the crowd: his in-laws.

Chasten Buttigieg grew up in Traverse City and his parents, Sherri and Terry Glezman, still live in the same house. They planned to make the roughly four-hour drive to Detroit to see their son-in-law compete in his second presidential debate.

It's one of several local ties for Pete Buttigieg of Indiana, the South Bend mayor who led all Democratic candidates in Michigan fundraising last quarter and has stressed his Midwest roots on a climb to national prominence.

“I married somebody from Michigan, so I feel like … a whole new level of connection,” Buttigieg said Sunday evening in Detroit, where his own mother joined him at a small-donor fundraiser rally. “But I always did, because South Bend is about five, six miles from the Michigan border. So I can’t quite see it from my house, but it’s close.”

Buttigieg first campaigned in Michigan this month, but his husband had already visited the state at least twice to vouch for his candidacy. The mayor lives near southwest Michigan, but Chasten may help him engage with voters up north, said Traverse City Democratic Party Chairman Chris Cracchiolo.

"I'll be honest, from the day I took over as chair, a lot of people feel ignored in northern Michigan," he said. 

Buttigieg has struggled to connect with African American voters and used his first public campaign appearance in the state to speak at last week's NAACP candidate forum in Detroit. He had attended a fundraiser three days earlier in Saugatuck.

Chasten recalls telling Pete Buttigieg about the Traverse region on their first date in Indiana four years ago, and again on their third date, when he fondly described the National Cherry Festival tradition of pit spitting, for which he boasts a blue ribbon.

He worked at the Cherry Republic as a teen and recalls riding on a tractor at his grandfather’s cherry farm in Suttons Bay while growing up in what he calls “God’s country, up north.”

But it’s also an area Chasten Buttigieg “ran away from” after two years at Northwestern Michigan College, “thinking there was no space for me" because of his sexual orientation, he said during a recent hometown speech.

Chasten Buttigieg attended Traverse City West High School, graduating in 2007. At the time, he was not aware of any openly gay students or teachers at the school.

“It was simply unsafe to be out. It was simply unsafe to be gay. Things have changed a bit,” he said last month during Pride Week in Traverse City, which has emerged as one of the more state's more gay-friendly cities.

Campaign surrogate

Chasten spoke at the State Theatre and again at a Pride Week parade, where he was welcomed as an emerging gay icon who could become the first first gentleman in the White House.

The theater nearly sold out, said Kristie Bach, a retired drama teacher who taught Chasten in high school and joined him on stage at the Pride event.

“It was just a real indication about how supportive the community is now, because they haven’t always been,” she said. “When I first moved here 35 years ago, it was a very conservative — very conservative — place.”

Chasten credits Bach with creating a “safe space” for him and other students at Traverse City West and said during his homecoming that “theater was the thing that saved me.”

Bach remembers him as a hard worker and a humorous student with a playful side he may “not be allowed to show off on the campaign trail." He and her daughter, who are friends and stood in each other’s weddings, are known for doing imitations together.

As for Chasten’s struggles to find acceptance as a teen, “I’m sure that’s how every gay child perceived that high school — and any high school that they were in — at that time period,” Bach said, noting the local gay-straight alliance had not yet formed.  

“In 2007, the presidential candidates couldn’t even come out and say, ‘Yes, I’m for gay marriage.’ They had to hem and haw around it, which is terrible. But that’s kind of the way things were back then.”

Mayor Buttigieg has described similar struggles with publicly announcing his sexual orientation. He feared “a career death sentence” and did not come out of the closet until 2015, he wrote in his recent memoirs. He was 33 years old. 

Joined by his parents throughout his recent return visit to Traverse City, Chasten Buttigieg also met with voters during a meet-and-greet at the local Democratic party headquarters.

Earlier in June, he spent the day with local officials in Lansing before attending a closed-door fundraiser for the Ingham County Democratic Party.

"We had some good discussions about issues that were important to folks in Michigan," including infrastructure, water, climate and college affordability, said Lansing City Councilman Peter Spadafore, who joined Mayor Andy Schor and other state and local officials at the Chasten Buttigieg meeting. 

"It wasn't about getting endorsements or that kind of thing," Spadafore said of the visit. "It was truly listening."

Mayor Pete

Buttigieg grew up in a part of Indiana so close to Michigan that many residents on this side of the border see television news broadcasts out of South Bend. 

As a teen, he took piano lessons in Berrien Springs, Buttigieg says in his new book, "Shortest Way Home." And he officially joined the military at a coffee shop in Coldwater, where he took his oath from a lieutenant based in the Detroit area who drove to meet him halfway from South Bend.

They had intended to meet at a Big Boy, but it was closed.

In his memoir, Buttigieg also recounts visits to Traverse City during his early days with Chasten. He describes his in-laws lovingly, as “the kind of people who sometimes pay for the customer behind them at the drive-thru window at McDonald’s."

The Glezmans initially struggled to understand when Chasten came out as gay at 17 years old. He briefly lived out of his car and on friends' couches before his parents invited him back home.

Chasten took Pete Buttigieg home to meet his parents for the first time Christmas 2015. The mayor “was made to feel the unique sense of welcome that comes from someone whose love for a son means love for whomever he loves, given on the sole condition that he be trustworthy,” he wrote.

Democratic presidential candidates are flooding Michigan this year, but they typically visit higher population centers in southeast or west Michigan. 

Spadafore, the Lansing councilman, calls himself a "big fan" of Pete Buttigieg but thinks his Michigan connections are less important than his general understanding of local government and Midwest issues. 

"Having the Midwest understanding of the way of life, you know, or mores and values and issues that are important to Michiganders," he said. 

Buttigieg brings an important regional perspective to the race, said Connor Berdy, a 24-year-old who is running for the Warren City Council as the first openly gay candidate in Macomb County history.

“A lot of times you get the big Democrats from the coastlines, and you get that elitist kind of vibe,” Berdy said. “The core of the Democratic Party is the working people of America, and nothing represents that better than the Midwest.”

Buttigieg brought a Midwest sensibility to the first Democratic presidential debate when he criticized President Donald Trump’s escalating tariff war because of the impact it has had on manufacturers and soy farmers.

He has stressed the importance of the region in the 2020 election, arguing swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan "punished" the Democratic party for its inattention by voting for Trump. 

“Our part of the country, I think, is where so much of the key to winning the presidency and moving the country forward lies,” Buttigieg said in Detroit. “It is here, I believe, this part of the country, that we understand that the reason politics matters is the way that it affects the everyday.”

joosting@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @jonathanoosting

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