US presidential candidate Pete Buttigeg: More than a mayor?

It was a humid Sunday in June, a quiet afternoon that Pete Buttigieg knew would not remain quiet.

US presidential candidate Pete Buttigeg: More than a mayor?

By Mark Leibovich

IT was a humid Sunday in June, a quiet afternoon that Pete Buttigieg knew would not remain quiet.

“You know, there are always going to be ups and downs,” the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said, as he puttered through the kitchen of the century-old Victorian home he shares with his husband of a year, Chasten. “You can’t just have an uninterrupted, meteoric rise.”

Buttigieg’s dogs, Buddy and Truman, were lounging on hardwood floors as he poured coffee into a mug and settled in at his dining-room table. In a few hours, he would be speaking to a noisy town hall at Washington High School, on his city’s predominantly black west side, where he would be called upon — shouted upon — to answer questions about what the cable networks had variously called ‘Mayor Pete’s Crisis at Home’ and the ‘Nightmare in South Bend’.

A week before, a white South Bend police officer, Sgt Ryan O’Neill, had shot a 54-year-old African-American man, Eric Logan.

The officer had responded to a report of a suspicious person going through cars in the parking lot of an apartment complex. O’Neill claimed Logan approached him with a knife, but O’Neill’s body camera was turned off, so there was no footage to back up his account. Logan was later pronounced dead at Memorial Hospital.

The killing set off days of protest against the local police, city officials, and Buttigieg, whose unlikely surge into the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates had been blunted by the ambivalence of African-American voters, among whom he had been polling close to zero nationally, even before the shooting.

No shortage of pundits offered theories on Buttigieg’s “black problem”, as the former chairwoman of the Congressional black caucus, Marcia Fudge, called it in The Daily Beast.

They posited some combination of Buttigieg’s lesser name recognition; the reluctance of more socially conservative blacks to accept a gay candidate; and the perception that the Harvard- and Oxford-educated sensation was just another privileged white politician in a hurry.

But Buttigieg has had a fraught relationship with the black community of South Bend for much of his eight years as mayor, especially over policing — a fact that the national media, after months of laudatory coverage of Buttigieg’s mayoral successes, now began to understand.

Up to that point, Buttigieg had mostly confronted race-related questions from a safe, aspirational remove. He was quizzed at a Fox News town hall in New Hampshire a few weeks earlier (by a white woman from Vermont) about what he would do to better reach voters of colour; the host, Chris Wallace, cited a poll showing that fewer than 1% of non-white primary voters supported him.

“It’s a really important strategic, but also ethical, question for our campaign,” Buttigieg said.

He has quoted the Rev Martin Luther King Jr and shared lofty-sounding ideas, such as his Douglass Plan (“to improve black American prosperity”). He is diligent about promising his friendly, white crowds that he understands the urgency of civil rights as an unrealised national goal.

“Racial inequality,” he assures his audiences, “either will be solved in our lifetime or it will blow apart the American project.” Buttigieg has a knack for reducing the intractable issues of American life to some academic-sounding “project”, as if racial inequality were just another puzzle for the smart kids at McKinsey — where Buttigieg worked as a consultant after college — to solve. He is also deft about acknowledging that this is exactly what he is doing: Noting his own privileged detachment as he is exercising it.

“There’s a certain luxury associated with being able to step back and be analytical about any of this,” Buttigieg said.

I had been checking in periodically with Buttigieg through the spring, a period in which his “meteoric rise” would accelerate further.

A video clip of him speaking Norwegian was bouncing across social media; the concept of supporting “a Maltese-American, left-handed, Episcopalian, gay war veteran mayor millennial”, as he described himself, was proving irresistible to a certain sector of the educated white electorate.

The luxury of Buttigieg’s safe remove ended with the shooting of Eric Logan. The mayor woke to the news before dawn on June 16 — Father’s Day, the first since his own father, Joseph Buttigieg, a Maltese immigrant, died in January.

Former US Vice President Joseph R. Biden (R) and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg (L) speak on stage for the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Former US Vice President Joseph R. Biden (R) and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg (L) speak on stage for the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019. Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

That scrambled Buttigieg’s plan to take Sunday off in New York with Chasten to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, which also fell on that day.

“The first thing you hear is that there was an officer-involved shooting, which is bad, but not the first time it’s happened,” Buttigieg recounted a week later.

“Then, you hear the guy’s in surgery; then, you realise, OK, he may not live. Then, you hear the deceased is black and the cop is white. And you keep getting bits of information, some of it accurate, some you’ve got to run down. And it didn’t take long to realise I needed to get home.”

Buttigieg made his way back to South Bend on Sunday, cancelling a Monday appearance at an LGBTQ gala in Manhattan and fundraising events in California that Tuesday and Wednesday.

He had planned a return to South Carolina, where the state’s Democratic Party was holding its convention in Columbia, that Friday and Saturday. The weekend featured the World Famous Fish Fry, a sweaty mob scene of a tradition hosted by Representative Jim Clyburn, of South Carolina, the House majority whip and the highest-ranking African-American member of Congress, and attended by nearly all of the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

But the fish fry conflicted with a hastily scheduled Justice for South Bend march through downtown to honour Logan.

Buttigieg had wanted to be in South Carolina, the early-voting state in which 60% of the party’s primary electorate is African-American — the place, as Buttigieg said, “where most Democratic candidates try to find their voice on race”.

Instead, South Bend’s black community was calling for the mayor to stay and listen. “You got a plane to catch somewhere?” one angry rallygoer yelled at the grounded candidate, one of many who would taunt his higher ambitions.

“You can seek to do the right thing,” Buttigieg said, “and be reasonably confident you made the less bad choice and get your ass handed to you all the same.”

That was the nature of being a mayor, he added — a far more tactile and hands-on job than, say, being a member of Congress, for whom running for president would not necessarily entail more than missing a few floor votes.

“A lot of it is just being there to absorb a lot of pain,” Buttigieg said of his decision to attend the rally in South Bend. “It’s not like Eric Logan’s mother is going to be happy about anything we come up with.”

Some of Buttigieg’s giddier supporters and profilers have likened him to Barack Obama, not just in his appeal to a new generation of political consumers, but also in his intent to create a new way of thinking about, and discussing, politics.

He is the next level of anti-politician politician: quintessentially political, but running against what he sees as the counterproductive outrage that seems to have taken hold in US politics, particularly in the Donald Trump era.

“Our response is going to be to model something completely different,” Buttigieg said.

Indeed, he possesses an Obama-like cool detachment — impassioned and remote at the same time; calmly in a rush. Even his execution of the necessary and grubby candidate activities, such as fund-raising, has an earnestly above-it-all air.

“Hey,” he began a blast email appeal to his supporters on the eve of the last Federal Election Commission fundraising deadline.

You know that we don’t subscribe to inauthentic urgency, here at ‘Pete for America’. That’s not why we’re here. We are here to build trusted relationships.

He then hit up his “trusted relationships” for donations.

Like most presidential candidates, Buttigieg published a book on the eve of his candidacy. It was part blueprint and part memoir of an ordinary and yet extraordinary life. Unlike most candidates’ books, Shortest Way Home is a decent read and was written by the candidate himself.

In it, Buttigieg describes his rampage through the checkpoints of American high achievement. The son of Notre Dame professors, he attended Harvard, Oxford (on a Rhodes scholarship), worked at McKinsey & Company, served as an intelligence officer in the United States Navy Reserves, and was deployed in Afghanistan while mayor of his hometown, an office to which he was elected in 2011, at the age of 29.

NO sitting mayor has ever been elected president; it’s rare they even seek the office at all, much less from a jurisdiction as small as South Bend, the fourth-largest city in Indiana. Yet the smallness of the town — its flyover-country co-ordinates, familiar mostly via Notre Dame football on TV — lends it an allegorical credibility.

‘The Bend’ could be anywhere, and that’s the point. In the telling of its most famous current resident, South Bend’s story became an accessible, replicable tale of a proud city that was in touch with its history and confident enough in its future that its mayor was not promising to make anything great again.

“This hurts,” Buttigieg said at his home, before heading out to the town hall to discuss Eric Logan. “This really hurts.” He seemed to be straining to convince me, acknowledging that he is not always “symptomatic” in exhibiting emotion. He got mixed reviews from theatre-critic pundits, who found his “performance” at previous Logan-related events to be lacking on the Bill Clinton scale of ‘I feel your pain’ empathy.

This is not a new critique of Buttigieg, who has clearly contemplated the subject.

“I think, a lot of time, when people are talking about what they want to see you do emotionally, what they really are asking is that they want you to make them feel a certain way.”

Buttigieg said his disposition was consistent with the aura he wants to project.

“A big part of what makes this campaign work is an ability to make people feel things they haven’t felt in a while,” he said. “One of them is hope. Another one of them is calm.”

Neither quality was in evidence in the crowd at Washington High School. “We’re not running from this,” Buttigieg said there.

After about 45 minutes, the gathering had pretty much devolved — shouting and cross-shouting and a few near-confrontations. It seemed as if complete bedlam might ensue. No-one was asking Mayor Pete to speak Norwegian.

“Get back to South Carolina,” a man sitting a few rows behind me in the auditorium yelled at the mayor. Buttigieg took his abuse with hands placed in a prayer-like repose over his lips, sitting perfectly still, except for his shoulders, which rocked ever so slightly.

BUTTIGIEG’S campaign has, to this point, been short on policy details and heavy on “laying out the values”, as he often says. In watching Buttigieg, the values are more about the vehicle: that is, Mayor Pete himself.

It’s easy to overlook that the campaign has largely been personality-based — much more about the Buttigieg résumé, quirkiness, and style than any ideological or policy direction. But part of that style is self-conscious humility, the idea that while the mayor might be a singular generational hope, at least he’s sheepish about it.

Buttigieg has perfected the cultivated modesty of the millennial striver. I talked to Buttigieg for a final time nearly four weeks after the Logan shooting, and he was about to reveal his oft-mentioned Douglass Plan.

It involves measures to “dismantle a fundamentally racist criminal-justice system” and “directly attack the racial wealth gap, building wealth in black communities.” He told me that the Douglass Plan had been in the works for months, though the Logan incident might have given its release more urgency and attention.

“I am, perhaps, the white candidate who will be asked most frequently about race,” Buttigieg told me — a curious statement, given that Joe Biden seems to have spent much of the last month being questioned about little else.

Despite all the attention he has received, Buttigieg remains a long shot in the race. He has, in recent polls, dropped solidly behind the top group of candidates: Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, the latter two of whom have inherited the star status Buttigieg enjoyed for much of the spring.

His fundraising ensures he will be around for a while, and his performance in the Miami debate was generally well-regarded — especially his blunt assessment of the “mess” he left behind in South Bend. But the joy ride of his early campaign months now calls for a next turn. In the coming weeks, Buttigieg said he would be releasing more detailed policy plans.

“We’ve laid out the values; now we lay out the details,” he said.

That will be the next phase, if not the next act. I heard a flurry of screeches and beeping over the phone in the background. The mayor of South Bend was in a hurry, as ever, and announced that he had to jump on another thing. He was in a car, in Washington for the day. He was not sure where they were, or where they were headed, exactly.

“I’m glimpsing at some shiny buildings,” he said.

Adapted from an article that first appeared in The New York Times Magazine

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