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Mayor Pete Draws A Crowd In Queens

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The Mayor was in Queens talking about his presidential campaign on Wednesday. That’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg from South Bend, Indiana. The event was promoted as the first in a series of fireside chats hosted by the Queens County Democrats to encourage 2020 voter participation in one of the most diverse counties in the nation.

Buttigieg drew several hundred people to LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City for the afternoon event. It was a larger crowd than any of de Blasio’s stops during his recent swing through Iowa and South Carolina during his opening week as presidential candidate.

But he would not comment directly on his fellow mayor’s recently launched presidential campaign, other than to make the case that city leaders bring important experience and perspective to a race that’s often dominated by Washington insiders

“The more the merrier,” said Buttigieg, noting, “the process has a way of winnowing things down.”

For Buttigieg, that process will not include trading nicknames or Twitter insults with President Trump—two hallmarks of de Blasio’s first few days on the trail. The 37-year-old urged Democrats writ large to remain disciplined and focused on voters and their issues, not the latest distraction coming out of the White House.

“I don't want to go on his show,” Buttigieg said, in a nod to the president’s roots in reality television. “If he's going to call me a silly name, that's him bidding to get my attention and I'm not going to give it to him, except where necessary to correct the record, because he doesn't deserve it,” he added.

Trump recently tried to give Buttigieg a nickname, applying the moniker Alfred E. Neuman from the satirical magazine MAD. The dig was lost on the 37-year-old, who claimed he had to Google it.

For nearly an hour, Buttigieg offered his prescriptions for some of the nation’s knottiest issues—from comprehensive immigration reform to refinancing of student debt. Sometimes he tossed out more provocative ideas like restructuring the United States Supreme Court, which he characterized as becoming an overtly political entity.

“Justices used to retire,” said Buttigieg, “Now they hang on and try to be strategic about when they retire, or pass away, to make sure it's during a favorable presidency. And it's just gone off the rails."

As an alternative, he said, the court could be expanded from nine justices to 15. Then five of those justices would need to be unanimously selected by the 10 other sitting justices. Buttigieg said a forthcoming article in a law journal would explain how to do it.

“This may not even be the exact right reform but I'm floating it so that I can help remind people of how ambitious we ought to be,” he said.

A Harvard graduate and former Rhodes scholar, Buttigieg even made his non-answers seem more thoughtful than evasive. Asked about the collapse of the Amazon deal, Buttigieg offered a carefully worded response that was framed to take into account both what a city looks for through economic development incentives and what a company wants.

But ultimately, he never weighed in on the specifics of the widely publicized deal that went bust.

“You can't buy jobs by taking a bad business decision and converting it into a good one. Or else you're going to get the kind of employer that's not very sticky and seven years from now somebody will come along with another incentive package and pick them off and take them somewhere else,” Buttigieg said, seeming to imply that the city’s Amazon deal may have been a bad one from the start.

The audience included a mix of students, community members and people active with the Queens Democratic party. Congressman Greg Meeks, the new county chairman, namechecked half a dozen district leaders and other community members during a nearly 20 minute filibuster at the start of the event, while Buttigieg was stuck in traffic after a Midtown Manhattan fundraiser.

A small number of superfans sported “Buttigieg” t-shirts. But most said they came just to hear what a possible 2020 Democratic contender had to offer.

“I thought he was great. He was authentic, he didn’t try too hard and the audience really resonated with him,” said David Aronov, a staff member of the New York City Council, who noted that he was not officially backing a candidate yet. Though Aronov also gave Mayor Pete, as he’s known, props for representing millennials like himself.

That youthful vitality was not universally well received. While no one gave any outright criticism, one of the Queens Democratic party elders offered the kind of polite assessment that’s the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head.

“He’s a very nice young man,” said Archie Spigner, a district leader known as the Dean of Southeast Queens. “Perhaps, one day, he’ll be president.”

Brigid Bergin is the City Hall and politics reporter for WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @brigidbergin.

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