Mayor Pete's tough homecoming: Did the Buttigieg campaign just go south in South Bend?

The Democratic campaign's golden boy went home to manage a crisis, and revealed his weakness on race relations

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published June 25, 2019 5:00PM (EDT)

Pete Buttigieg holds a town hall meeting in South Bend, Indiana on June 23, 2019. (ABC News)
Pete Buttigieg holds a town hall meeting in South Bend, Indiana on June 23, 2019. (ABC News)

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old openly gay mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has undoubtedly made an impression on the nation since mid-March, when he was still explaining how to pronounce his name at nearly every public appearance.

Once considered an extreme long shot for the Democratic presidential nomination, Buttigieg is perhaps the only Democratic candidate besides Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to gain enough traction in the polls to rival Sen. Bernie Sanders for second place behind former Vice President Joe Biden. Buttigieg reportedly raised a startling $7 million in April alone, which equaled his total fundraising in the first quarter of 2019.

But on the eve of the first Democratic primary debates in Miami this week, it appears as if Buttigieg's unlikely pursuit of the presidency has hit its first major roadblock. Like most road mishaps, this one happened close to home. 

Buttigieg pulled himself off the campaign trail for several days last week after a white police officer shot and killed a black man in South Bend, the city of 100,000 where he is still chief executive. While he didn’t drop everything on his itinerary —  he stopped in for a brief appearance at the state Democratic convention in South Carolina, a key early primary state — Buttigieg was essentially forced to return to his day job to soothe his city's escalating tensions. 

There has long been significant anger among African-American residents in South Bend over the behavior of the city’s police department. In addition to longstanding complaints about race-based police misconduct, the South Bend Police Department has become less diverse. The department had 26 African American officers among its 253-person department in 2014. There are now only 13 black officers left and almost 90% of South Bend’s police force is white. (The city population as a whole is just over 26% black, according to recent estimates.)

Early in his career, Buttigieg fired the city’s first black police chief, Darryl Boykins, for recording the conversations of white police officers. Boykins was trying to purge the department of racists but came under FBI investigation for possible violations of federal wiretapping laws. After Buttigieg first took office in 2012, Boykins apparently failed to tell him about the investigation, creating a messy situation in which Buttigieg heard about the wiretapping probe from the FBI and demoted Boykins. Buttigieg has said federal prosecutors pressured him to fire the chief in order to avoid charges under the Federal Wiretap Act. 

Buttigieg refused to make the recordings made by Boykins public, and no official investigation into allegations of racism within the police department ever occurred. In response to the ensuing community uproar, Buttigieg's administration created a civilian safety board to increase transparency in police activity regarding the use of force and appointed three African-American community members to serve on it. His office says that “the number of incidents leading to a use of force has gone down by a third in the last four years, and the number of investigations and complaints against police officers has fallen dramatically.” 

But Buttigieg, who has been mayor of South Bend for nearly eight years, continues to face criticism for his handling of police misconduct cases, including a case involving an officer who was twice disciplined for civil rights violations but not fired.  The city's police department reportedly paid more than $1.3 million in brutality and civil rights settlements during the first five years of Buttigieg's tenure. 

So he implemented a body camera requirement for South Bend police last year. But in the incident earlier this month, the police department says that the white officer who shot an unarmed black man did not have his body camera activated, for unknown reasons. 

Eric Logan, a 54-year-old black man, was fatally shot on June 14 by Officer Ryan O'Neill, who court records show was previously accused of using racist language and excessive force against black people. Prosecutors say O’Neill responded to a call about a suspicious person going through vehicles and spotted Logan leaning inside a car. According to prosecutors, Logan then approached O’Neill with a six-to-eight-inch knife raised above his head. O’Neill shot Logan twice, and Logan later died in a local hospital. 

Community protests quickly shone a national spotlight on years of racial tension in Buttigieg’s South Bend — a tension that few in the national media covering the mayor’s meteoric rise had explored or even noticed. 

“The effort to recruit more minority officers to the police department and the effort to introduce body cameras have not succeeded and I accept responsibility for that,” Buttigieg admitted at a tense town hall meeting over the weekend. He said he was “extremely frustrated” to learn that the officer’s body camera was switched off at the time of the shooting. 

Back in South Bend, Buttigieg has spent the last few days meeting with law enforcement officials in the city, Logan’s family, and upset community members. “It is as if one member of our family died at the hands of another,” Buttigieg said at a tense town hall on Sunday. 

“We don’t trust you!” a woman in the audience shouted back.

On the campaign trail, Buttigieg has played up his military service and his record as mayor of a small heartland city to sell himself as appealing to at least some of the white, working-class voters Democrats lost to Donald Trump in 2016. But there can be little doubt that with black voters, a major force in the Democratic base that will be decisive in Southern primary states, Buttigieg has failed to launch. 

“You running for president and you expect black people to vote for you?” a black woman asked Buttigieg he emerged in front of a protest on Friday.

“I’m not asking for your vote,” Buttigieg responded.

“You ain’t gonna get it either,” the woman said matter-of-factly.

Buttigieg admitted that he had only a “theoretical” understanding of racial bias in policing when he took office.

“I’ve learned about how raw these issues are,” he said in South Bend last week. “I’ve learned that this is a mix of not only distant historical issues but of things happening around us every day.”

That Buttigieg had to leave the campaign trail in South Carolina — an early primary state where a majority of Democratic voters are black — to deal with unfinished business with the black community back in his home town sharpens the focus on his vulnerability in handling race relations. 

Buttigieg has surged as high as 11% support in some South Carolina polls, but has consistently attracted almost none of the Palmetto State's African-American voters. When recently asked about his support from black community leaders in South Bend, the mayor reportedly couldn't name anyone.

Buttigieg is an LGBTQ pioneer who can speak several languages and play passable classical piano. Whether his almost entirely white support base will remain enthralled after his South Bend detour remains to be seen. 

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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