Pete Buttigieg is facing the first serious test of his underdog presidential campaign, with a crisis at home overtaking his mayorship and putting into sharp relief his struggle to gain traction with voters of color.
The South Bend, Ind., mayor has jumped on and off the campaign trail over the past week trying to balance the needs of a hurting city — where a police officer shot and killed a black man last week — with a fast-paced 2020 schedule building up to the first Democratic primary debates and a critical fundraising deadline.
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It may be a make-or-break moment for Buttigieg, his supporters say. What “this crisis does is it gives us a window into the kind of president he would be, for better or worse,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who endorsed Buttigieg this spring and said he thinks the mayor has done well so far. “How does he react in a crisis, [that’s] when the real personality comes up.”
Buttigieg’s schedule over the past week illustrates his delicate balancing act: The mayor canceled a policy rollout and a fundraising trip to California to stay in South Bend last Sunday, meeting throughout the week with community leaders and attending a vigil for Eric Logan, who was killed. But on Friday and Saturday, he pulled double duty.
He spoke to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in Miami before returning to South Bend that night to speak to protesters marching from the South Bend Police Department. Again, on Saturday, Buttigieg flew to South Carolina to speak to the state Democratic Party’s convention — before returning home, again, for a fiery, emotional Sunday town hall.
“Candidly, if a senator or a congressman is out campaigning, they’re not as readily missed than a chief executive of a city,” said David Axelrod, who served as President Barack Obama’s chief strategist. “That’s a pressure he feels more acutely than others, but that’s the nature of the race.”
On Monday afternoon, Buttigieg left for Miami, where he’ll appear in a Democratic National Committee presidential debate on Thursday.
Strategists warned that to emerge unscathed from the debates, Buttigieg must “manage the concerns of the residents in his city” who have “real questions” about Buttigieg’s handling of police accountability in the past, said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who has worked on several presidential campaigns.
“If I were him, I would focus on getting this right because if you don’t get this right, nothing else may matter,” Simmons said.
Buttigieg has already faced criticism for his outreach and record with black voters, including his decision to remove the city’s first black police chief in 2011 and the impact his signature housing initiative had on minority neighborhoods. The police shooting of Logan has put new focus on a series of troubling racial incidents involving South Bend officers in recent years, as well as a difficult history of race relations in the city that some residents say Buttigieg has not done enough to address.
Buttigieg has also triggered pushback in the other direction: On Monday, South Bend’s Fraternal Order of Police released a statement saying Buttigieg “has in no way unified the community” and charging that his “focus on this incident is solely for his political gain and not the health of the city he serves.”
Over the weekend, Buttigieg said he supported an independent federal investigation into Logan’s death. Buttigieg’s campaign also pointed to several initiatives the mayor implemented during his tenure to address concerns around the city’s policy department, including the introduction of body cameras (though the officer who shot Logan was not using his at the time), the adoption of a new duty manual governing police conduct, and increased efforts to diversify officer recruitment. Buttigieg also selected a majority-minority Board of Public Safety, which is charged with disciplinary action for police officers.
“The many well-intentioned steps we have taken, locally and across the country, have not succeeded. We have not done enough,” Buttigieg said to supporters in an email on Monday morning. “It is clear we need to implement bolder and more aggressive actions moving forward.”
The moment also demands Buttigieg, a solutions-oriented former McKinsey consultant, showcase a different side of the whiz-kid persona he brandished this spring while rising up in the Democratic presidential polls.
But that’s not something that comes easily for Buttigieg, who is “not a guy who puts his emotions on display,” Axelrod said. “His strength is that he’s cool, calm and collected, but the flip side is, he’s not terribly emotive.”
During Sunday’s town hall, Buttigieg solemnly listened and responded to shouted questions. But when he spoke to the press later that evening, Buttigieg appeared visibly shaken, said that it was “my job to face it” and that he was “sick of these things being talked about in political terms, in theoretical terms” because “it is people’s lives.”
“I know Pete as a compassionate man, so he’s going to have to make sure to work extra hard to show that side of him,” said Steve Benjamin, the African American mayor of Columbia, S.C., who hasn’t endorsed in the 2020 primary. “Crisis creates opportunities.”
Buttigieg’s weakness with Democratic voters of color“has been an emerging narrative for him,” said Karen Finney, who served as a spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“It highlights something people were already starting to question about him,” Finney said. “All of that raises the stakes for Pete Buttigieg, and how he ultimately handles this.”
The latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found Buttigieg at 7 percent support among Democratic primary voters — but only 1 percent among African Americans.
Buttigieg’s allies and supporters believe he is doing exactly what he should be doing: listening to constituents in South Bend.
“He is leaving the campaign trail often to make sure that he is doing what he was elected to do in South Bend. He has taken major steps to promote transparency in this process,” said Jennifer Holdsworth, a Democratic strategist who ran Buttigieg’s 2017 campaign for DNC chairman. “His No. 1 goal is to listen and to work to bring everyone in the community together to achieve transparency, fairness and justice in this investigative process.”
Multiple Democratic strategists and Buttigieg supporters expect the mayor to be confronted about the shooting and his relations with African Americans during the presidential debate on Thursday, probably by one of his competitors in the primary.
“He’s listening. That’s good. He’s admitted that that is a problem. That’s good,” said Rev. Joe Darby, a prominent South Carolina pastor, who noted that Buttigieg could “do a better job of empathizing” with the African American community in South Bend. “He needs to be proactive about handling this thing,” he said.