Pete Buttigieg and the Crucible of Race
One records with ease Pete Buttigieg’s confluence of gifts. He’s smart, thoughtful, articulate, and almost preternaturally self–possessed. He combines near-perfect political pitch with considerable personal grace. He manages to fuse his identity as a married gay man with social justice and respect for traditional values.
His resumé impresses: Harvard; a Rhodes scholarship; a stint at McKinsey; military service in Afghanistan; seven years as mayor of a midsized Midwestern city. Named “mayor of the year” in the first of two terms, he spurred a sequence of development projects widely credited with revitalizing South Bend.
Nor does his youthful pursuit of the presidency seem presumptuous to those who’ve known him. Fresh from college, he joined the Cohen Group, a strategic consulting firm founded by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen. “Even then,” Cohen Group Co-President Bob Tyrer told me,” Pete was a very serious, thoughtful, and impressive young man, well-liked and respected by colleagues.” Having kept in touch with him since, Tyrer says that Buttigieg “is a good guy and the real deal. He may not make it this time, but I would not be surprised to see him as president one day.”
At 37, Buttigieg already exudes the competence and capacity of someone who knows a great deal about a great many things. The palette of his public persona includes self-awareness, swiftness of thought, balanced judgement, and quiet humor. One can imagine him decimating Donald Trump in a debate without breaking a sweat or even raising his voice.
And yet, for all this, his presidential campaign could founder on the shoals of race. If so, the immediate engine of his undoing would not be some lapse on the campaign trail, but a depressingly familiar urban tragedy: the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer in South Bend.
Until that moment, Buttigieg was living what passes, in the scrum of presidential politics, for a charmed life. He courted the masters of television and print until he seemed ubiquitous on cable news. Impressed by his uncanny ability to express nuanced thoughts in flawless sentences while avoiding missteps or extremes, the media helped propel him from unknown to legitimate contender. Wrote David Brooks: “Buttigieg’s secret is that he transcends many of the tensions that run through our society in a way that makes people on all sides feel comfortable.”
Asked on Pod Save America how he would run against Trump, he rose above the corrosive politics of personality: “I think the less about him the better… [W]e need to prepare people for [the] world where this president and this presidency has come and gone.”
Similarly, he strives to avoid ideological stereotyping. The New Yorker notes, “he’s still working to synthesize the disparate forces animating the Democratic Party and its voters in this moment”, noting that “his policy ideas are more gestural than prescriptive.” Writes Brooks, “Buttigieg squares a lot of circles. He deftly detaches progressive policy positions from the culture war. He offers change without Sturm and Drang.”
This reflects a studied effort to avoid labels which could limit his political reach. “I’m deliberately resistant to some of these spectrum analyses,” he told Zach Beauchamp of Vox,”because I think they’re more useful to political creatures than they are to voters or to people like me trying to make a case for certain ideas”. On Pod Save America, Buttigieg argued that our political moment “is just completely beyond what the old left-center-right map or the Democratic-Republican tradition can explain.”
Buttigieg’s approach often leads to a posture on issues that is more cautious than specific, in which his gift for persuasion and performance as mayor substitutes for detailed policy proposals. Parsing his website and public statements, one senses that he is carefully positioning himself to unify Democrats while avoiding traps which could spell trouble in a general election.
Of particular note is his avoidance of litmus tests—a smart purple state strategy. On healthcare, he embraces “Medicare for all who want it” while preserving the option of retaining private health insurance, calling this a “pathway to Medicare for All.” More pointedly he told Esquire that “any politician who lets the phrase ‘Medicare for All’ escape their lips has to have some idea of how you get from point A to point B.”
Except for lower-income families, Buttigieg thinks college should be more affordable—not free. His website pledges to “implement a Green New Deal” while preserving space to craft his own version—conscious that, as he said on Pod Save America, the Green New Deal as currently framed is “vulnerable to being caricatured.”
His position on immigration has typified mainstream Democrats. Instead of glibly pledging to “abolish ICE” he proposes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including Dreamers; ending backlogs in our lawful immigration and asylum processes; stabilizing the Central American countries from which so many refugees are fleeing; and “reasonable security measures at the border”—which measures he otherwise leaves undescribed.
So far, so judicious. But during the first Democratic debate in which he participated, the great majority of 10 Democrats on stage—including Buttigieg—felt compelled to support making illegal boarding crossings a civil, not criminal, offense. Buttigieg now asserts that criminalization is “dead wrong,” serving his immediate political needs by propitiating party progressives. But he surely knows that embracing this new litmus test spells trouble in the general election – the antithesis of his long-term strategy.
On another vexing subject—taxation—his website is silent. But in a New York Times podcast, he was more forthcoming: “You’re going to need a mix of solutions. And I think a higher marginal income tax rate and a wealth tax need to be part of that.” Here Buttigieg makes an interesting choice, because while the wealth tax is broadly popular among voters, it is anathema to corporate Democrats and big donors.
On other issues he remains unexceptional and often vague. He supports a $15 an hour minimum wage. He’s for investing in infrastructure and affordable housing, empowering unions, paying teachers more, and providing some form of child care assistance—details not included.
More specifically, his plan for consumer protection includes regulating predatory lenders, strengthening antitrust standards, protecting “your rights over your own data,” and reinvigorating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. For veterans, he pledges to increase the VA system’s quality of care.
To stem gun violence, he embraces universal background checks, banning military-style assault weapons and, more boldly, “a nationwide gun licensing system.” On cultural and social issues, he’s a full-service Democrat: protect LGBTQ Americans; safeguard abortion rights; repeal the Hyde amendment; support gender equity and the Equal Rights Amendment.
Clearly aware that his policy positions have been characterized as anodyne, last week Buttigieg released his most original and detailed policy proposal yet—for National Service. He would dramatically increase AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, create a new Climate Corps, Community Health Corps, and an Intergenerational Service Corps which would focus on caregiving and mentorship.
In return, he offers those who serve “student debt forgiveness, vocational training, and hiring preference for service fellows.” As with his call for “intergenerational justice,” this program may enhance his appeal to younger Americans—a demographic critical to his prospects.
Further, his program for democratic reform is admirably comprehensive: election security, including a paper trail for every vote. Instituting automatic voter registration. Expanding early voting. Establishing voting by mail. Declaring Election Day a national holiday.
To combat the power of big money, Buttigieg envisions a small donor matching system for federal elections. He advocates statewide redistricting commissions to eliminate gerrymandering; abolishing the Electoral College; and, most novel, restructuring the Supreme Court to insulate it from further politicization—perhaps by expanding its number to include justices chosen by unanimous agreement of its current members.
Most striking is Buttigieg’s perception that, as he told Zack Beauchamp, “there is tension between capitalism and democracy, and negotiating that tension is probably the biggest challenge for America right now. . . . [W]hen you have capitalism without democracy, you get crony capitalism and eventually oligarchy. So a healthy capitalist system, working within the rule of law, is the stuff of American growth and can be the stuff of equitable growth. But we don’t have that right now.”
Here Buttigieg is shaking hands with Elizabeth Warren. But whereas Warren bristles with specific policies, for the most part Buttigieg is positioned for maximum flexibility—the better to placate both moderates and progressives, and then defeat Trump in November. One can hardly fault this strategy.
But herein lies his difficulty. Warren’s message is ideological; Buttigieg’s message is himself: Both as symbol of generational change and, experientially, as a mayor who has successfully met the challenges of governance. Announcing his candidacy, he declared: “We would be well served if Washington started to look more like our best-run cities and towns rather than the other way around.”
“In many ways,” he has said, “South Bend is our message.” On Pod Save America he hammered this home: “I do think we’d be better off if Congress started looking more like the community of American mayors, instead of the other way around. . . . You could be a senior member of the Senate and have never in your life managed more than 100 people, never had that experience of alternating between . . . policy development and incident command in a matter of minutes. Or of having the final frontline responsibility for bringing people together in tense and difficult moments.”
In retrospect, these passages read like tempting fate. Like many larger cities, South Bend is a ticking time bomb—plagued not simply by the loss of jobs and populace Buttigieg managed to address, but by serious racial divisions which can stymie the most gifted leaders. And despite his success in courting the media, the narrative of a long campaign can turn. But really, given that his mayoralty was the sole public credential of a candidate not yet 40, what else could Buttigieg say?
Until recently, the most apparent obstacle he faced was not his youth, but his status as a married gay man. As to that, he seems to have made considerable headway by speaking about his sexuality in a heartfelt way while linking the solitude he once felt to the exclusion suffered by disfavored groups writ large.
In the process, he is mainstreaming his own life and, by extension, that of others. Wrote David Brooks: “[H]e . . . personifies the progress made by the LGBTQ movement, but he doesn’t do so in a way that feels threatening or transgressive to social conservatives. He has conservative family values; it’s just that his spouse is a husband, not wife. He speaks comfortably about his faith and says that when he goes to church he prefers a conservative liturgy to anything experimental.”
Helpfully, he has invoked traditional Christianity as the basis for a progressive worldview which promotes compassion and welcomes diversity. In an interview with USA Today, he said: “The left is rightly committed to separation of church and state. . . . But we need to not be afraid to invoke arguments that are convincing on why Christian faith is going to point you in a progressive direction. When I think about where most of Scripture points me, it is toward defending the poor, the immigrant, and the stranger, and the prisoner, and the outcast, and those who are left behind by the way society works.”
While resistance remains, polling shows that most Americans are open to a gay presidential candidate—indeed, in ominous sign for Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, they are more accepting of a gay candidate than of candidates over 70. But still, more than 30 percent express reservations. And such misgivings are most prominent among key Democratic constituencies: African-Americans and Hispanics, many of whom embrace traditional religion. Here, Buttigieg must hope, his own embrace of religion can serve as a bridge.
But Buttigieg’s biggest challenge in the primaries may not be how African-American voters view his marriage, but how they think Buttigieg views them. Even before the shooting in South Bend, a Monmouth University poll had Buttigieg at 13 percent among white Democratic voters nationwide, but only at 2 percent among Blacks. In a way that is hard to define, in tone and style he seems less accessible to African Americans than some of his white competitors: avuncular Joe, Obama’s VP; feisty Elizabeth, full of programs to improve black lives; loose–limbed Beto, who rose by unequivocally supporting black athletes who protested during the national anthem.
“Pete has a black problem,” Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told the Daily Beast, “I don’t know of one black person out of Indiana that supports him.” In South Carolina, where black voters comprise over 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, a poll in May showed Buttigieg at 0.00 percent.
Larry Sabato tells the Indianapolis Star that Buttigieg has serious issues to overcome with people of color: “He’s the classic, privileged white male. He doesn’t have position papers so much as he has soundbites. Could the fact that he’s gay discourage them from turning out? Probably. I just don’t know how many. But it might make a difference in swing states.”
From the get-go, Buttigieg knew that; few blacks were present at his kickoff rally in South Bend. Outreach to minorities, he acknowledged, is “one of the most important pieces of homework for our campaign.”
Pursuant to his “Douglass Plan”—named after the iconic Frederick Douglass—he has staked out strong positions on racial justice: investing in black entrepreneurship and home ownership; eliminating health disparities; defending affirmative action; protecting and expanding voting rights and ballot access; combating racial gerrymandering; aiding historically black colleges; and supporting the study of reparations. He further pledges to redress inequality in the criminal justice system; end mass incarceration;and, in particular, to “prevent discriminatory police practices” and “increase police accountability for misconduct.”
Inevitably, those last phrases implicate his performance as mayor; fatefully, Buttigieg invited this. Touting his experience as preparation for the presidency, he told Pod Save America: “I get the call on anything. It could be an economic development issue that’s playing out in slow motion or could be a racially explosive officer involved shooting. And I’ve got to get on television in a matter of hours and bring people together.”
In saying this, he set a standard for himself which—in the vortex of presidential politics—amounts to strict liability.
Now a black man is dead at the hands of a South Bend white cop in shadowy circumstances—a political Rorschach test onto which polarized constituencies project their own experiences and preconceptions. And this tragedy has resurrected the race-based controversies of Buttigieg’s mayoralty.
The population of South Bend is nearly 27 percent black; its racial and social tensions are regrettably familiar. It would be fortuitous indeed if his seven years in office were unmarred by racial controversy.
In reality, his grace period lasted 13 weeks.
When Buttigieg took office the city’s police chief, Darryl Boykins, was an African-American who won respect from both blacks and whites in his department. He had also, it transpires, secretly recorded phone calls made by white officers who allegedly described him in racially disparaging terms. For this, the 30-year-old mayor fired him, and then installed a white officer in his place.
The recordings have not been publicly released. They remain tied up in legal proceedings; Buttigieg insists that he has never listened to them. According to the New York Times, Buttigieg acknowledges that he initially viewed the case only in “very legalistic terms”—and, on that score, a judge later found that the wiretapping violated federal law.
But many in the black community believed that their mayor had sided with racist whites over a black chief. In his campaign memoir, Buttigieg writes that he had ” no good option” but concedes that firing Boykins “affected my relationship with the African-American community in particular for years to come.”
This episode seems to have set a template for mistrust. One problem was the racial composition of the force itself. In 2014, Politico reports, black officers made up more than 10 percent of the department; in 2018, that figure was 5 percent; it now sits at 6 percent. That Buttigieg replaced Boykins’s white successor with another white officer served to underscore this gap.
Even Buttigieg’s considerable achievements in helping revive South Bend had a racial downside. Beyond question, his redevelopment plans created streets which are more pedestrian-friendly and encouraged the construction of new hotels, restaurants, and apartments. He stopped the process of de-industrialization which had blighted the city and reduced its population by a quarter. During Buttigieg’s tenure, the city’s population has actually grown, which is a tremendous accomplishment for a small midwestern city.
His “1,000 houses in 1,000 days” project demolished or improved abandoned buildings in order to re-develop the town. In turn, these efforts attracted an influx of high-tech jobs.
Yet critics complain that his projects displaced blacks and Hispanics; that these communities did not benefit equally from the creation of new jobs; that the rate of poverty among African-Americans in South Bend remains twice that of blacks nationwide; that eviction rates are high; and that affordable housing is still too scarce.
Buttigieg acknowledges the merits of some of these complaints. Still, it seems unfair to lay all them at his door—such difficulties are both too intractable and all too typical of struggling cities; mayors, not governors or senators, take the blame for often unavoidable urban discontents. And it is hard to think of an ambitious redevelopment plan without critics who, to varying degrees, have a point. It can take a while to measure the benefits – or determine the beneficiaries.
But overall, Buttigieg has clearly helped make South Bend a much better place. After coming out as gay, he was overwhelmingly re-elected by 80 percent of voters. Quite possibly, the city’s racial frictions would not have materially affected his candidacy—until the death of Eric Logan.
According to police, Logan was pillaging parked cars before menacing a white police officer, Ryan O’Neill, with a knife—whereupon O’Neill shot him in self-defense. But O’Neill had previously been accused of making racist comments. Worse, at the time of the shooting, both his body and dashboard cameras were switched off, leaving his story uncorroborated – thus conjuring, yet again, the toxic history of unjustified or dubious police killings of blacks.
O’Neill’s dereliction is hardly Buttigieg’s fault. When the city deployed body cameras in 2018, the young mayor called it an important step to “improve mutual trust and accountability between officers and the public.” No matter. The outrage of the black community, and Logan’s family, focused on Buttigieg.
Returning to South Bend, he faced the gauntlet of a police shooting gone wrong: protests; vigils; community meetings; the bone-deep rage of Logan’s family sending shockwaves throughout South Bend. Attempting to combine leadership with empathy, Buttigieg met with the family; spent hours talking to local leaders; faced constituents at community meetings; held press avails promising a fair and exhaustive inquiry.
Again, no matter. Where some saw a mayor laboring to hold the city together, others blamed him for the laxness of police—and for not terminating O’Neill at once. “It’s all talk,” Logan’s mother said. “He’s not doing nothing for me. Everything I say is going in one ear and out the other. He still hasn’t fired the guy who killed my son.”
Buttigieg is not grasping for excuses. His administration “has not done nearly enough,” he acknowledges. “We have a long way to go when it comes to trust in his community.” Questioned at the Democratic debate about why blacks weren’t better represented among South Bend’s police, he responded with a mixture of contrition and frustration: “Because I couldn’t get it done. My community is in anguish. . . . And I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. The officer didn’t have his body camera on. It’s a mess. We are hurting.”
In South Bend, the local judge appointed a special prosecutor to conduct his own investigation. Buttigieg welcomed this. Yet again, no matter. Because for Buttigieg, like Eric Logan, the facts no longer matter. America’s racial cauldron is boiling on its own.
Still, he strove to reach African-Americans. At a press conference, he promised to review the police department’s policies on use of force and body cameras. As to his campaign, he said: “Look, when you’re new on the scene and you’re not from a community of color, you’ve got to work much harder in order to earn that trust. I’m committed to doing that work.”
Were it only that simple. Yet Buttigieg persists. At the annual meeting of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, he reiterated his resolve to invest in minority-owned businesses, abolish private prisons, reform discriminatory laws, and buttress voting rights.
In Iowa, he was confronted by a racist heckler who proposed that he should “just tell the black people of South Bend to stop committing crime and doing drugs.” “Sir,” Buttigieg responded bluntly, ” I think racism is not going to help us get out of this problem.” When the heckler rejoined that his suggestion “has nothing to do with race,” Buttigieg retorted “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.” The audience applauded.
In the area of policy, just yesterday morning Buttigieg rolled out an 18 page white paper spelling out in painstaking detail the specifics through which he would implement his Douglass Plan. In its completeness and ambition, the plan rivals anything proposed by Elizabeth Warren—“a comprehensive investment in the empowerment of black America.” The remaining question is not the depth of his policy proposals, but whether they can help him make the emotional connection with black voters he so badly needs.
He clearly understands this. Discussing yesterday’s rollout on MSNBC, Buttigieg strove to convey his commitment and sense of urgency. The plan, he said, helps answer a basic question among African-Americans : “How is your presidency going to make my life better, and different?” Implicitly invoking his proposals as a basis for trust, Buttigieg stressed that he “wants black voters to see how I talk about this issue with white voters. “ But he further asserted that he was trying to reach Americans at large– the failure to address systemic racism “could unravel the whole American project in my lifetime.”
While Buttigieg’s poll numbers may be flagging, his campaign is far from over—in the second quarter of 2019, he outdid his peers by raising an impressive $24.8 million. So Buttigieg will have a fighting chance to reach black voters somehow, some way—including how he responds to the special prosecutor’s report—however improbable that may seem now. Should he manage to pass that daunting test, and become the Democratic nominee, he can truly claim to have presidential gifts.
But even then, he will not escape the undertow of race which roils his party and the electorate at large. In 2016, Trump profited by summoning racism, sexism, xenophobia, and cultural resentment out of hiding. He will do so again.
Given the political dynamics within the Democratic party, including the need for a unifying ticket which will turn out the base, any white male nominee must seriously consider taking a running mate of color, most likely a woman. That seems all the more true of Buttigieg. The result would be a ticket which, until recently, seemed beyond our collective imagining. Then we would learn much about our national character, for good or ill—and whether a gay man and a black woman can rise above bigotry to defeat America’s bigot-in-chief.