vision 2020

Will the Debate Put Mayor Pete’s Campaign Back on Track?

Buttigieg did well in the debate, but it’s unclear if it will stick. Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP/Shutterstock

In all the discussion of Kamala Harris’s boffo performance and Joe Biden’s bad night, dramatized by the former’s direct confrontation with the latter on his civil-rights record, another candidate who appeared to do well in the second 2020 Democratic debate got less attention than might otherwise be the case. Vox’s assessment of the debate reflected the consensus view that South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg did well:

Almost every breakout moment belonged to Harris, but insofar as anyone else stood out, it was Pete Buttigieg …

Buttigieg needed to remind primary voters why they took such a shine to him in the first place — his calm, sensible intelligence — and he largely succeeded.

He scored some points in particular with his deft comment on the migrant-children crisis that reminded people of his status as the Democratic candidate most willing to take on the Christian right from the perspective of an observant believer:

We have got to talk about one other thing because the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion. Now our party doesn’t talk about that as much largely for a very good reason which was we are committed to the separation of church and state and we stand for people of any religion and people of no religion. But we should call out hypocrisy when we see it, for a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is okay to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.

Until Joe Biden ended his closing statement with the traditional benediction of “God bless America,” Mayor Pete was the only candidate to mention the Almighty, which reinforces his distinction as an openly gay and outspokenly religious candidate.

But Buttigieg’s biggest moment in this debate — when he was directly asked about his handling of a recent police shooting in South Bend, and more generally, his record on police-minority relations — is a bit tougher to adjudge. As I noted earlier this week in a chat with my colleagues Zak Cheney-Rice and Ben Hart, the killing of Eric Logan, an African-American man, by a white South Bend police officer was a multifaceted threat to Buttigieg’s credibility:

[T]he incident has exposed two of his biggest vulnerabilities as a presidential candidate: his not very impressive day job and his not always impressive handling of it, and his notable lack of support from African-Americans.

Indeed, Cheney-Rice and I agreed Mayor Pete might not be able to recover from the incident, which led to renewed criticism of his record from African-American citizens of South Bend, particularly during a tense town hall meeting he called.

At the debate Rachel Maddow got directly to the point:

We are going to begin this hour with Mayor Buttigieg. In the last five years civil rights activists in our country have led a national debate over race and the criminal justice system. Your community of South Bend, Indiana has recently been in uproar over an officer involved shooting. The police force in South Bend is now 6 percent black in a city that is 26 percent black. Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?

To his credit, Mayor Pete did not hem and haw or try to change the subject, but took responsibility for a bad situation:

Because I couldn’t get it done. My community is in anguish right now because of an officer-involved shooting — black man Eric Logan killed by a white officer. And I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. The officer says he was attacked with a knife, but he didn’t have his body camera on. It’s a mess. And we’re hurting. And I could walk you through all of the things that we have done as a community — all of the steps that we took from bias training to de-escalation, but it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan. And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact and nothing that I say will bring him back. This is an issue that is facing our community and so many communities around the country. And until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there is a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.

John Hickenlooper jumped in to tout his record on police-community relations as former two-term mayor of Denver in a way that implicitly threw shade at Buttigieg’s record, and then Mayor Pete’s fellow 30-something Eric Swalwell directly asked him why he didn’t fire the police chief right away once it became obvious that the cop in the Logan case didn’t turn on his body camera. This could have been a dangerous line of inquiry since one of Buttigieg’s problems with his city’s African-Americans stems from his involvement in the dismissal of South Bend’s first and only black police chief, but then Marianne Williamson pulled the discussion into the topic of reparations and the moment passed.

So did Mayor Pete put out the fire on the contentious issue of police racism? It may depend on who you ask. The New York Times interviewed some community activists from South Bend who clearly weren’t mollified:

In an apartment on South Bend’s largely black Northwest Side, the reviews were mostly negative.

“He skipped over all the stuff that’s happened,” said Tiana Batiste-Waddell, referring to a history of police misconduct in South Bend, some of which led to officers being fired or found guilty of rights violations.

“It’s not in his best interest to go into all of it because he knows he didn’t do anything,” said Jordan Geiger, who works for a nonprofit group.

“But he needs to speak to those,” Ms. Batiste-Waddell said. “That’s how I believe our department got to the point of killing a black man. Because none of the other racial things that have happened have been addressed.”

Obviously the Logan shooting is still a big issue in South Bend. Logan’s family is suing the city for damages under civil-rights laws, claiming his killing was racially motivated. The county prosecutor has asked a local judge to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the incident. Buttigieg himself has called for an investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. So the Logan tragedy and the surrounding disputes aren’t going to go away. The Times’ judgment on the impact of the mayor’s handling of it all is probably right:

There has been little polling since the shooting took place. But Mr. Buttigieg’s attempts at damage control, in the form of readily voiced contrition and community meetings that were raw and chaotic, may be more convincing to voters nationally than locally.

So he has more work to do to recover fully as the nominating contest gets closer to actual voting.

Will the Debate Put Mayor Pete’s Campaign Back on Track?