Potential first ‘first gentleman’ visits UWEC

Chasten Buttigieg, UWEC alumnus and husband of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, talks about building a community of hope and love through his husband’s campaign

Taylor Reisdorf

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March 25, 2020

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Chasten Buttigieg, a UW-Eau Claire alumnus and husband of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, spoke to students about his husband’s campaign.

Members of UW-Eau Claire’s College Democrats and a handful of people adorned in bright blue and yellow “Pete 2020” garb stood near the entrance of Woodland Theater on Wednesday as a steady flow of Eau Claire campus and community members shuffled in to find open seats.

As the theater slowly filled, Jake Malzacher — chair of the College Democrats and a public relations student at UW-Eau Claire — walked around with notecards and a plastic bucket for audience members to fill with questions they had for the anticipated speaker: Chasten Buttigeig.

Chasten is the husband of Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. He’s also a UW-Eau Claire alumnus. As soon as 1:30 p.m. rolled around, all eyes were on the solo mic stand at the front of the theater.

Tori Wensloff, vice chair of the College Democrats and a second-year elementary education and language arts student, said a member of the Buttigieg campaign reached out to them and wanted to coordinate a campus visit. She had met Chasten via video chat in the spring, she said, but was excited to meet him in person.

“I think his visit will bring more awareness into our current election and get people more involved in the process, no matter who they support,” Wensloff said.

With a relaxed “midwestern-nice” smile, Chasten began his Q&A by encouraging audience members to migrate towards the front of the theater and familiarize themselves with those seated near them — a representation of the community he and his husband claim they are striving to create through their political campaign.

Chasten stressed that his relationship with politics is very personal, for reasons beyond the fact that his husband is one of the 19 Democrats running for president.

“In order for us to win in 2020 — and I hope you’re for Pete, but even if you’re not — we are all going to have to

get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Chasten said. “We have to make it personal.”

Chasten’s parents are business owners who live in rural Michigan and his mom has been battling cancer for 12 years. He said she relies heavily on the quality and affordability of Obamacare for her own survival and the survival of their business. Also, Chasten said the current political moment has the potential to put his marriage, “the most precious thing” in his life, at risk.

However, Chasten said politics haven’t always felt personal for him. He spent a lot of his life feeling forgotten, outcasted and hopeless. Growing up, he felt pressure to fit the monolithic mold of his rural, conservative and religious town.

When he came out as gay at 18 years old, he said he felt thoroughly misunderstood and disparaged. His inability to come to terms with who he was, and his lack of support, led to his decision to run away. Chasten said he temporarily lived out of his car and couch-hopped, but that his parents eventually reached out and reconciled their fractured bond.

Chasten’s twisted path led him to Eau Claire, he said, where he studied theater and global studies.

“Theater was the only space that made me feel like I belonged,” Chasten said. “It was the only space that made me feel like it was okay to be different, it was okay to stick out.”

Chasten gave a nod to some of Eau Claire’s campus and community monuments: Davies Student Center, which wasn’t yet built when he was a student here; the UW-Eau Claire Players, a theater organization with which he was heavily involved as a student; the footbridge; and the Pablo Center, which he was able to tour during his visit. He also mentioned Dooley’s cheese curds and Racy’s.

“It really is a pleasure to come home,” Chasten said. “Eau Claire has always felt like a home to me.”

While Eau Claire offered him a sense of community unlike anything he’d had before, Chasten said he still felt disconnected from politics and the world that existed outside of Eau Claire.

Chasten said he met Pete in the summer of 2015 while he was pursuing a Master’s degree in education. He became a full-time teacher, but left the classroom in January when Pete decided to run for president. Chasten said Pete’s approach to politics is what finally made him more comfortable talking about the subject.

“I felt like politics was that thing far away in Washington that made life a lot worse for people back home,” Chasten said. “And then I met someone like Pete. Pete’s always the same guy. The guy you see on stage in front of thousands of people at a rally is the exact same guy who’s folding laundry with me back at home …”

Chasten’s immersion in the political campaign has opened his eyes to the many individuals who feel just like he did before meeting Pete: hopeless, forgotten, outcasted. As the campaign has progressed, he’s taken on the role of “story collector.”

“Pete gets to be the storyteller up onstage and I get to go out and meet people, talk to people, collect their stories and bring them back to the campaign,” Chasten said. “It not only helps shape the narrative that Pete tells from the stage, but it shapes our policy, too.”

If he does end up taking on the role of “First Gentleman,” Chasten said he hopes to focus on arts education — the realm he believes to be the most valuable but is generally most undervalued by American culture.

“I think Americans, especially young people, deserve a champion in the White House who will value the arts and humanities — especially making sure that every kid has access to equitable arts education so they can feel the same way I felt when I was in the theater,” Chasten said.

Above all, though, Chasten said he and his husband strive to unify a divided nation.

“You have to care about other people; you have to think about how all of the things that are on the line in 2020 are not only affecting your lives but the lives of the people around you,” Chasten said.

Reisdorf can be reached at [email protected].