Mayor Pete Buttigieg debuted a new look at Tuesday’s primary debate: that of a moderate pugilist, a combative scold whose engagement with his opponents’ ideas ranged from derisive to dismissive. Adopting a tone that verged on snide, he assailed several of the more left-leaning candidates onstage. Beto O’Rourke’s mandatory assault-rifle buybacks proposal became a “shiny object” from a man Buttigieg “[didn’t] need lessons from … on courage, political or otherwise”; the details of Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare for All plan, marked by her insistence on discussing its funding in terms of costs rather than taxes, were obscured by her evasive responses to “a yes-or-no question that didn’t get a yes-or-no answer” — behavior, the mayor said, that encapsulates “why people here in the Midwest are so frustrated with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular.”
As my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti wrote, it’s all part of a strategy to position Buttigieg to benefit if Joe Biden falters. With Warren and Bernie Sanders staking out the primary’s leftward flank, the mayor sees his best hope for securing the nomination — or at least catapulting himself into a higher polling tier — in drawing contrasts with them and projecting himself as a younger, more lucid, and less baggage-laden competitor for supporters of the former vice-president: liberal centrists and older black voters. It’s a risky gambit for two reasons. First, Buttigieg’s appeal derives largely from his mild-mannered charm and self-branding as an above-the-fray consensus-builder — both of which were undermined by his antagonistic behavior on Tuesday. But more crucially, it’s imperiled by his knack for thwarting his own efforts to build relationships with black voters, whose support he’ll need if he’s to seriously challenge Biden, Warren, Sanders, or even Kamala Harris.
The latest example occurred on Friday, when the Associated Press reported that the mayor was scheduled to attend a fundraiser co-hosted by Steve Patton. As head of Chicago’s law department under former mayor Rahm Emanuel, Patton was a key figure in the administration’s efforts to hide dashcam footage of Laquan McDonald’s killing from the public. The black 17-year-old was shot 16 times in 2014 by then–police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was later convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated battery and sentenced to nearly seven years in prison. Officers at the scene initially lied, saying that McDonald had lunged toward them with a knife. The Emanuel administration pushed to hide video that disputed their account until after the mayor won reelection — a decision made under Patton’s advisement. When reporters this week drew attention to Patton’s role in the cover-up, and that he’d made a max donation of $5,600 to Buttigieg’s campaign, Buttigieg and his staffers declined to comment, according to the AP. But as public pressure mounted on Friday morning, they abruptly removed Patton as a co-host and refunded his money. “Transparency and justice for Laquan McDonald is more important than a campaign contribution,” Chris Meagher, the Buttigieg campaign’s communications director, told Axios. “We are returning the money he contributed to the campaign and the money he has collected. He is no longer a co-host for the event and will not be attending.”
Buttigieg has criticized promises made by the Warren and Sanders campaigns to refuse high-dollar donations from corporate PACs and lobbyists. “My competitors can go with whatever strategy they like … we’re not going to beat [Trump] with pocket change,” he said earlier this week. But ongoing developments showcase the irony of this stance: Buttigieg has attracted less money in donations than either of them, and, until public pressure forced his hand, one of his donors was a central figure in a police shooting cover-up. All of which complicates a campaign that’s already weathered its share of racial controversy, particularly the questions surrounding Buttigieg’s firing of South Bend’s black police chief and the police shooting death of Eric Logan over the summer — both of which have drawn fiery criticism from black locals. The mayor’s efforts to make nice have come off, to some of them, as superficial and unconvincing. “You running for president and you expect black people to vote for you?” one woman asked as he addressed a march protesting Logan’s death in June. “I’m not asking for your vote,” Buttigieg replied. “You ain’t gonna get it either,” the woman said.
By several accounts, Buttigieg’s once-dismal support numbers among black voters in key primary states, most notably South Carolina, are trending upward, and his black outreach team insists that name recognition is his main barrier to improving them exponentially. But the abrupt tonal shifts displayed during Tuesday’s debate and his ill-advised association with Steve Patton — paired with his initial decision not to comment when Patton’s role in the Laquan McDonald case was brought to his attention, and only parting ways with him once public pressure made their relationship untenable — risk creating even more barriers to his efforts to amass black support than his troubles in South Bend had already created. Perhaps more troubling, his newly combative attitude and derision toward progressive positions for which he once professed unequivocal support suggest the kind of boring careerism that fuels the very problems on Capitol Hill that he claims to want to solve. Last-minute efforts to mend the rifts he’s caused with black voters are unlikely to save his campaign. But they do illustrate why his path into Biden supporters’ hearts is rockier than he might have estimated.