STORM LAKE, Iowa — Pete Buttigieg clambered into the top tier of presidential candidates by presenting an optimistic, youthful vision for the country. To stay there, he’s grappling with his failures.
Buttigieg is facing deep scrutiny of his record — the first major bump in the 2020 campaign trail for the young mayor, as detailed in his recent public appearances and media interviews as well as interviews with supporters. He’s facing questions from voters about race relations in South Bend, Ind., especially regarding the recent police shooting of an African American man, and is dashing home regularly to manage relations with a fuming black community and a grieving family that sued the city, as well as a police union hitting him from the other side.
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Addressing the letdowns in his short public life is a major change for the 37-year-old Democrat, whose early-year polling momentum has stalled. But for the first time, that’s what Buttigieg has had to do, taking responsibility for not hiring more black police officers, including in the first presidential debate, and lacing campaign speeches with additions on racial justice, immigration and the difficulties of city government. This week, Buttigieg sought to turn attention back to the future with a call for billions of dollars in federal spending to combat systemic racism.
The honeymoon, it’s safe to say, is over. And Buttigieg knows that how he handles the next phase of the campaign will determine whether his meteoric rise is followed by just as fast of a fall.
“I think it’s one thing when you’re introducing yourself. You’re sticking up your hand, you’re saying ‘Hi,’ you’re saying, ‘I exist,’” Buttigieg said recently on the sidelines of an event in Iowa, reflecting on the state of the campaign. “Now, it’s very different.”
“When we’re at the level we’re at, wrestling with the issues we’re wrestling with, it takes a lot more intensity,” Buttigieg said. “But that’s healthy. … It’s one of the reasons I think it’s important for a mayor to run in the first place. And we’re going to continue to see that. Issues that bring us together, issues that people are divided about — all of them are issues of enormous importance.”
Since the fatal shooting of Eric Logan in mid-June, Buttigieg has recalibrated his campaign schedule to mix town halls in early-primary states with town halls in South Bend, highlighting the unique complexity of running for president as a mayor. He has just started rolling out detailed policy plans, but one of the first is a massive set of proposals to boost African American entrepreneurship, health care, voting rights and more — dubbed the “Douglass Plan” after famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Buttigieg has built his campaign and political biography more around the idea of being a mayor than the complicated dynamics it can dredge up. “What could be more different from this president than a laid back, middle-class, millennial mayor from the industrial Midwest?” Buttigieg told a crowd during a recent campaign stop in Sioux City. “I think mayors offer something unique at a time when we need to get Washington to start looking more like our best-run cities instead of the other way around.”
Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler, an early Buttigieg supporter who introduced him at his campaign kickoff rally earlier this year, said running as a mayor has come with advantages in a country fed up with Washington. But now, Buttigieg is grappling more with the disadvantages that come with the territory.
Mayors can brandish “real achievements” to voters, Adler said, citing Buttigieg’s work to establish community oversight panels for police. “But they also see real city issues. You see somebody who gets shot and killed in the community — that’s not good.”
In recent weeks, Buttigieg has added more to his stump speech about his mayoralty, weaving in his perspective about racial justice.
“I think it also makes sense to put forward somebody who’s confronted the challenges facing diverse, low-income, and struggling communities in the heartland,” Buttigieg added at the Sioux City stop. “I also think it’s not the worst idea to send someone who represents a new generation of leadership in our time.”
And in Q&As during his stops in Iowa, Buttigieg fields questions on gun violence and race relations in South Bend.
“The worst part of my job is dealing with the aftermath of gun violence,” Buttigieg said, answering a question on gun control during a Democratic Party barbecue in Carroll County.
At the same stop, a right-wing blogger suggested Buttigieg simply tell “the black people of South Bend to stop committing crimes.”
“The fact that a black person is four times as likely as a white person to be incarcerated … for the exact same crime is evidence of systemic racism,” Buttigieg responded. “It is evidence of systemic racism, and with all due respect sir, racism makes it harder for good police officers to do their job too. It is a smear on law enforcement.”
Buttigieg’s supporters have praised him for his handling of the shooting both on the campaign trail and in South Bend.
“It brings to the forefront the fact that you have someone who’s actually governing and you’re actually in a situation where people can see what you’re doing,” Adler said.
But no one gets credit for governing without risking blame.
“The executive [job] is a double-edged sword running for president. You have a real track record of an administration and having a fairly large city staff,” said Marco Lowe, who spent years as a Seattle-based Democratic operative and government official for former Washington Gov. Gary Locke and former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. “But it comes back when something happens in your municipality where you’re directly responsible.”