Pete Buttigieg Is Still Figuring This Out

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, Ind., told me 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,” he said.

Buddy and Truman, the Twitter-certified “First Dogs of South Bend,” were lounging on hardwood floors as Buttigieg 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, shot a 54-year-old African-American man, Eric Logan, after the officer responded to a report of a suspicious person going through cars in the parking lot of an apartment complex. O’Neill claimed that Logan approached him with a knife, but his body camera was turned off, so there was no footage to back up his account. Logan was later pronounced dead at Memorial Hospital in South Bend.

The killing set off days of protest aimed at the local police, city officials and Buttigieg, whose unlikely surge into the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates had been blunted by ambivalence from 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 after the incident. They posited some combination of Buttigieg’s lesser name recognition; the reluctance of more socially conservative blacks to embrace an openly gay candidate; and the perception that the Harvard- and Oxford-bred sensation was just another privileged white politician in a hurry.

But Buttigieg has also had a fraught relationship with the black community of South Bend for much of his eight years as mayor, especially over matters of 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 color; the host, Chris Wallace, cited a poll showing that less than 1 percent of nonwhite primary voters supported him. “It’s a really important strategic but also ethical question for our campaign,” Buttigieg ruminated.

He has quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (“Dr. King”) and shared lofty-sounding ideas like 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 unrealized national goal. “Racial inequality,” he assures his audiences, “either will be solved in our lifetime or it will blow apart the American project.”

Pete Buttigieg gives a speech in Fresno, Calif.

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 told me. I had been checking in periodically with Buttigieg through the spring, a period in which said “meteoric rise” would accelerate in earnest. A video clip of him speaking Norwegian was bouncing across social media; the novel 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. He seemed to be living on late-night TV couches when he was not delighting photo-hungry, check-writing crowds. They were not only learning how to pronounce “BOOT-edge-edge” but also chanting the eye-chart name and wearing it on phonetic-spelling T-shirts that I saw several people sporting at a small-donor fund-raiser in Minneapolis in early May. “I see Pete Buttigieg as more of a healer-warrior, and there’s an absence of vitriol with him,” Dave Dvorak, a physician I met there, told me. “And maybe that’s what we need.”

[Read about Buttigieg’s life in the closet.]

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. 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 realize, O.K., 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 realize I needed to get home.”

Buttigieg made his way back to South Bend on Sunday, canceling a Monday appearance at an L.G.B.T.Q. gala in Manhattan and fund-raising 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 honor Logan.

Buttigieg had very much wanted to be in South Carolina, the early-voting state in which 60 percent of the party’s primary electorate is African-American — the place, as Buttigieg put it, “where most Democratic candidates try to find their voice on race.” Instead, South Bend’s black community was calling for the mayor to stay home and listen. “You got a plane to catch somewhere?” one angry rally-goer yelled at the grounded candidate, one of many who would taunt his higher ambitions. Here was Buttigieg being laid low by the same riddle of race relations in America that has stymied generations of well-meaning progressive mayors that came before him.

“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 ultimate 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.”

“I’ve been here my whole life, and you all don’t do a damn thing about me or my son or none of these people out here,” Logan’s mother, Shirley Newbill, told Buttigieg at the rally. Latisa McKinney, an African-American woman from South Bend told me at the town hall there on Sunday: “Ain’t nothing gonna change for us. Ain’t nothing gonna change for us after Mayor Pete’s gone, either.” It was maybe some small solace to Buttigieg that even a frustrated constituent respected his brand, taking care to address him by his folksy small-town moniker, “Mayor Pete.”

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 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 American politics, particularly in the Trump era. “Our response is going to be to model something completely different,” Buttigieg told me.

And indeed, he possesses an Obama-like ability to wield cool detachment — impassioned and remote at the same time, calmly in a rush. Even his execution of the necessary and grubby candidate activities, like 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 fund-raising 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.

[Read about the 23 Democratic candidates running for president.]

Like most presidential candidates, Buttigieg published a book on the eve of his candidacy, part blueprint and part memoir of an ordinary and yet extraordinary life. Unlike most candidates’ books, “Shortest Way Home” is actually a decent read and even seems to have been written by the candidate himself (he confirmed this). 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 serving as mayor of his hometown, an office that he was elected to in 2011 at age 29. Beyond the author himself, South Bend is the unquestioned star of the book, the main instrument through which the protagonist tells his coming-of-age story. He purchased his creaky old home, built in 1905, and renovated it himself over two years in the late ’00s. It sits across West North Shore Drive from the swelling waters of the St. Joseph River — a river “in a hurry to get somewhere,” as Buttigieg characterizes it, or projects upon it.

He describes how he first imagined leading an “administration that ran on business principles without abandoning its public character.” Initially, he disdained the ceremonial tasks that filled a mayor’s schedule: the ribbon cuttings, holiday tributes and solemn remembrances. “Shaped by my consulting background, I arrived in office wanting to get concrete, measurable things done,” Buttigieg writes. Eventually, he would learn to embrace that part of the job, equating the simple act of representing a city to a kind of moral position. “The value was not in the cleverness of what I had to say but simply the fact of my being there,” he writes. “Introvert that I am, I even came to love a good parade.”

[Read about Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.]

No sitting mayor has ever been elected president; it’s rare they even seek the office at all, much less from a jurisdiction as little as South Bend, the fourth-largest city in Indiana. Yet the smallness of the town — its flyover-country coordinates, 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.

Betsy Hodges, a former mayor of Minneapolis and a friend and supporter of Buttigieg, points out that the current president makes a particularly rich foil for a small-town mayor’s story. “I think the Trump agenda and Trump demeanor have increased our capacity to dehumanize one another,” she told me. Social media, she added, has already accelerated this tendency to become detached and alienated from our communities and leaders. In this regard South Bend is small enough to model a civic compact, dramatizing how politicians and people and places should relate to one another. “A mayor’s main agenda is to never forget that a policy is at its core about people,” Hodges said.

This can work in both directions, naturally, and reality does tend to assert itself in unpleasant ways, as inevitably as potholes. “There is tremendous accountability that goes with being a mayor,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former campaign and White House aide to Barack Obama who is unaffiliated with any 2020 candidate. “Every turd tends to land on your doorstep. And everyone knows where your doorstep is.”

“This hurts,” Buttigieg told me 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 theater-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-showing. This is not a new critique of Buttigieg, who has quite 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.”

He looked momentarily excited, as if a small epiphany had just struck him. “A mayor is sometimes described as having a role of a pastor and a commander in chief all in one,” he told me. “Pastors aren’t always the most emotional, although interestingly it’s certainly an important part of black tradition, and maybe that’s part of why these things sometimes read differently across cultures, right?”

Buttigieg offered his own disposition as being 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 told me. “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 insisted there. After about 45 minutes, the gathering had pretty much devolved: shouting and cross-shouting and a few near-confrontations where 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 prayerlike repose over his lips, sitting perfectly still, except for his shoulders, which rocked ever so slightly.

I caught up with Buttigieg again a few days later in Miami, where he was ensconced in a 17th-floor suite at the downtown Hilton. He would be participating in the second night of the back-to-back Democratic debates, to be held on Thursday; he came down on Monday, the day after the town hall. “We’ve had some supporter events,” he explained, which is usually candidate-speak for “fund-raising.”

South Bend, he told me, was “taking a moment to breathe and process everything.” This was convenient, because Buttigieg has many donors in Miami and the June F.E.C. filing deadline was a few days away. His fund-raising diligence would pay off a few days later when the campaign announced that it had collected $24.8 million from more than 230,000 donors for the three-month period that ended in June. The “Crisis at Home” headlines would soon be replaced with breathless assessments of “Mayor Pete’s Impressive Haul.”

I asked him whether he had ever considered leaving his mayor’s job to focus on his run for president. “I re-evaluate that constantly,” he told me, though not since the recent turmoil began; if anything, it’s more important than ever that he stay in his job and see the crisis through at home.

“Yes, but you’re in Miami,” I pointed out: South Beach, not South Bend.

“Yes,” he acknowledged. “But I’m in charge.”

Buttigieg seemed entirely at home here, surrounded by political tourists, reporters and strategists, some of whom he had known since his days as president of Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Scores of campaign aides and blow-dried TV people and candidates were cavorting in the lobby. The place had a political-summer-camp feel reminiscent of a party convention or caucus night at the bar of the Marriott-Des Moines. Beto O’Rourke walked by on the way upstairs, nursing a venti cup of something. “I think Hick is staying here, too,” Buttigieg said, presumably referring to another fellow camper, the former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper.

Amid the attention paid to Buttigieg’s eclecticisms — his frequent literary references, his ability to speak eight languages, his classical piano training and Radiohead fandom — it’s easy to overlook the fact that he is, at heart, a fairly conventional political animal. Buttigieg is steeped in campaign life, having worked for John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008, and he tends to talk, more than most candidates, like an operative. In 2017, he ran unsuccessfully to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee — a position that is essentially that of a glorified fund-raiser, talking head and political strategist rolled into one. His early ambitions, his methodical climb up the accomplishment ladder and his youthful attention to networking have more in common with Bill Clinton than Obama.

This is relevant, Pfeiffer pointed out, because “Mayor Pete’s message is basically a punditlike critique of politics.” He talks a lot about how Democrats must reach voters in the Midwest, the importance of reaching faith-based citizens and how it’s time for the country to “change the channel” from the tired horror show of our recent political battles. 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 to this point — 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 on July 10, a Wednesday, by phone. It had been nearly four weeks since 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.

Buttigieg told me that if he was not a politician, he might have been a writer. “If I was more creative, I would have been a novelist,” he told me. “I can do the prose, but I just don’t have the imagination that it takes.”

He seems to very much enjoy the narrative journey of campaign life, with its cinematic pace and stranger-than-fiction turns. Best of all is that he gets to be the central player in his story. He used to partake of politics as a spectator sport, as a detached observer. “Well, it’s not so much a refuge from the day to day to be following national matters anymore,” he told me. “If nothing else, being in the middle of this has allowed me to shed a lot of the illusions of how it all works.” How? “Well,” he said. “I’ve discovered that a show like ‘Veep’ is more realistic than most Americans would care to imagine.”

Despite all the attention he has received, Buttigieg remains very much 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 fund-raising 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 were headed, exactly. “I’m glimpsing at some shiny buildings,” he said.

Mark Leibovich is a staff writer for the magazine and the author of “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times.” He last wrote about the upcoming Democratic primary.

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