Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Utah on Presidents Day, drawing big crowd

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks at The Union Event Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.

Pete Buttigieg celebrated Presidents Day like no other presidential candidate ever has: campaigning at a Salt Lake City rally with thousands of excited fans — a Democratic rock star in a rock concert hall.

“This is what it looks like to prove there is no such thing as a permanently red state,” Buttigieg said to raucous cheers at his jampacked event held in the Union Events Center in Salt Lake City.

Buttigieg expounded on that idea in a short interview before he took the stage.

“I would never write off any state. I’m from Indiana. We hadn’t voted Democratic since LBJ until Barack Obama came along,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. Utah also has not voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964.

Buttigieg told the crowd that while he disagrees with GOP Sen. Mitt Romney on much, he praised him for voting his conscience to impeach President Donald Trump.

“If he was the only one” who voted his conscience, “doesn’t that say more about what has become of the Republican Party than anything else?” Buttigieg asked.

He called on Americans to act as a new impeachment jury to remove Trump.

“Won’t it feel good to put corruption behind us?” he asked. The crowd cheered.

“Who’s ready to put the tweets behind us?” The crowd cheered louder.

Buttigieg added, “I don’t even think that’s a partisan statement anymore."

Showing unity, he also spoke a few lines in Spanish — telling immigrants, “este país es tu país también,” this country is your country, too.

Buttigieg, the winner of the Iowa caucus and close runner-up in the New Hampshire primary, made this quick stop in Utah after spending most of the weekend in neighboring Nevada before its next-in-the-nation caucus Saturday.

He is a Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar, Afghanistan veteran and former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who says he helped revive that Rust Belt city. At age 38, he seeks to become the nation’s youngest president ever.

Some of the Utah crowd — estimated at 4,500 by the owner of the events center — arrived as early as 1 p.m., waiting in freezing temperatures for six hours before the doors opened, and 7 1/2 hours before the event began. Organizers had to move to a larger venue because of the high number of RSVPs it received.

“We are very determined to vote for the right person. We’re here to see what he has to say,” said Josh Chamberlain, 25, who was at the front of the line.

“I love this new generation of politicians stepping up,” said Jacob Penrod, 26, who arrived at 3:30 p.m. “His message of unity is what this nation needs right now.”

Crowds wore shirts and buttons that showed how to pronounce the candidate’s name, including a picture of a boot plus the words “edge edge,” or a picture of a Buddha with the word “judge.” The happy but cold crowd sometimes chanted, “President Pete, President Pete,” as it waited.

In taking questions from the audience, Buttigieg was asked, “How do we change bigotry and dividedness?”

He said, “It would help to get a new president. But Donald Trump didn’t invite bigotry, he just rode it into the White House.”

He said when he was deployed in Afghanistan, others in the military didn’t care about each others’ politics or whether he had a girlfriend or boyfriend. “They just cared about whether I could do my job….I have hope for American unity from the experience of serving alongside people so different from me” but all caring for each other.

His visit came as he announced a new plan for “housing justice” earlier Monday, and after he responded over the weekend to attacks from conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh who said Democrats and America are not yet ready for a gay president.

Limbaugh had said, “They’re saying, OK, how’s this going to look, 37-year-old gay guy kissing his husband on stage next to ‘Mr. Man’ Donald Trump…? America’s still not ready to elect a gay-guy-kissing-his-husband-on-the-debate-stage president.”

On CNN this weekend, Buttigieg responded, “Well, I love my husband. I’m faithful to my husband. ... On stage we usually just go for a hug. But I love him very much, and I’m not going take lectures on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh."

Talking about “housing justice,” Buttigieg said homelessness has become a crisis not only for the poor but also middle-income families who are being priced out.

“Corporate greed and generations-long racist policies have thrown millions of Americans into a housing crisis that threatens our economy, health, and sense of belonging,” Buttigieg said on Facebook as he released the plan.

He promises better consumer protections against predatory loan practices, helping to generate 2 million more affordable rental units and expanding housing assistance for more than 5 million families with children.

Buttigieg’s visit to Utah drew the attention of Trump’s campaign, which attacked it.

“Pete Buttigieg’s vague platitudes can’t hide the fact he is a failed former mayor that would kill Utah’s booming economy with higher taxes and an extreme climate agenda,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall gave Buttigieg a surprise endorsement on the stage. “Pete is the candidate who can beat Donald Trump,” she said. She also joked that “every Democrat in the city is here — and 10% of the Republicans."

Buttigieg also has secured endorsements from Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and her father, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson.

“As mayor of South Bend, he never shied away from tough conversations, and as president, he’ll prioritize restorative justice to work to reduce incarceration across the United States. Pete understands the importance of belonging –– he will be a president for all of us, not only those that support him,” said Gill, the first Indian-born district attorney elected in the United States. Buttigieg’s father is an immigrant from Malta.

Jenny Wilson said, “Perhaps most importantly, Pete can defeat President Trump in November. Not only will he energize the base of the Democratic Party, but we believe he will be able to attract a larger share of moderates, independents, and liberal Republican voters than any other candidate in the field.”

For decades, Utah rarely saw presidential candidates because its primaries or caucuses were late in the process — often after winners were determined. So, leaders moved up this year’s primary to Super Tuesday along with 13 others states on March 3, seeking more attention.

Besides Buttigieg, other still-competing Democratic candidates who visited Utah this cycle are Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg (who is returning Thursday for a two-hour public event at a yet-to-be-announced site).

While yet to visit this year, Bernie Sanders attracted a crowd of 14,000 four years ago before winning the 2016 Utah Democratic caucus with 77% of the vote.

Of interest, Buttigieg as a high school senior won a national “Profiles in Courage” essay contest sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. His topic: The political courage of then-Rep. Bernie Sanders as an independent in Congress. He and Sanders now are neck-and-neck in this year’s campaign.