Pete Buttigieg knows some black voters are skeptical of how they’re supposed to fit in with his suddenly ascendent presidential campaign. As Buttigieg sees it, that’s how it should be.
“It’s like our relationship with America,” the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told BuzzFeed News in a recent interview. “You have to be certain; you have to believe in this project enough to see where it’s going to come up short and care that you’re going to fix it. And I guess I need those kinds of checks. I needed people in my administration whose eyebrows would go up at a meeting when we were all starting to drift into one policy direction when we hadn’t thought about something. And the same should be true of a campaign.”
Buttigieg said his campaign’s proposals and plans could help. “But in order for it to work, it actually has to be built by a range of diverse voices, both in terms of our staff organization and in terms of our supporters. The tone of a campaign is maybe set by the candidate, but it’s lived out by its supporters. And so I need people who care enough about what I’m doing to be excited, but are not without skepticism that it’ll be what they hope it to be.”
Buttigieg is running as a generational change candidate, someone who will gear politics more toward millennials and younger generations. That means, as one of the many white men in the Democratic primary, finding a way to shape his message more directly to people of color.
In the wide-ranging interview with BuzzFeed News, he said he sees an opportunity in his campaign to push similarities between disparate communities as “the basis for solidarity” to build a multiracial coalition to fight what he calls the “practice of white identity politics out of the White House.”
The warp speed of Buttigieg’s rise — he’s polling as high as third in some polls — has him working to quickly evolve as a candidate in a way that isn’t natural for him: last week, a young graduate from Brigham Young University came out in a speech, saying later he had been inspired by Buttigieg. (Buttigieg later told BuzzFeed News he had some sense that his coming-out would have that effect on others, and that he’d been uplifted by the young man’s courage.) His campaign is under a spotlight, and he’s being taken seriously by some of the highest-profile people in the country. He met with Hillary Clinton last week in New York, days after having lunch with Oprah in Los Angeles. His young, do-everything adviser, Lis Smith, was the subject of a profile in Politico; the mayor and his husband Chasten were featured on the most recent cover of Time magazine. He's also doing more to appeal to audiences of color — he's set to appear in a presidential forum with the Black Economic Alliance on June 15, which will be televised on BET Networks.
And yet, Buttigieg is still at the beginning, or at least close to it. It’s why he’s trying — “not without peril” — to leave room for his policy platform to evolve. As an example, he called the conversation around allowing prisoners to vote “really interesting,” although as a policy, he said the case for full enfranchisement is, for at least the time being, further than he’s willing to go.
“I’m trying to hold off enough room so that we can take on board the range of opinions we have about exactly how to tackle problems,” he said. “It’s going to be really important, versus saying, like, ‘Here’s my plan down to the smallest detail and this is what we’re going to do, and hopefully you like it, and if you do, be for me,’” he laughed to himself.
That trend is emerging as Buttigieg’s record as mayor has come under some scrutiny, including his housing program that bulldozed houses in communities of color and his demotion of Darryl Boykins, the first black American man to serve as chief of police in South Bend.
In his meeting with Rev. Al Sharpton last week, Buttigieg made his case for why the real consequences of decisions he made as mayor have made him a stronger, more prepared leader.
“Making a principled decision doesn’t mean that it’ll be easy or even good,” Buttigieg told BuzzFeed News in reference to fallout from the Boykins decision, adding that as mayor of the city, he feels torn when the community is torn. “Sometimes you’re choosing between the least bad decision you can make, which means that it’s not actually true that you can rest easy with what you do, even if you did what you believe to have been the right thing given that situation. It’s not always the case that the truth will set you free.”
Buttigieg has been pressed more about Boykins recently, including by a young black woman at a CNN town hall last month. Boykins had been taping officers who were said to be using racist language. The young woman, London Vallery, asked what was on the tapes that led to the police chief’s demotion. Buttigieg said he didn’t know, but went on, saying he demoted Boykins because he found out he was under investigation from the FBI, which compromised his trust in his appointee.
“The reason I don’t know is that these tape recordings were made in a way that may have violated the Federal Wiretap Act,” he replied. He added that a legal process was underway that once finished would “allow a judge to say whether or not the content of these recordings can be released so we can figure out whether it’s true or whether it’s not true.” He said he understood the overarching issue was about trust between the police force and the community, and it was why he worked to implement training on bias and doubled down on community policing effort like increasing foot patrols and diversifying the force. South Bend police officers now use body-worn cameras.
Buttigieg told BuzzFeed News, “I sometimes wonder if I would have believed my own explanations if I were on the outside looking in — if I hadn’t actually lived it. And, you know, part of leadership entails taking on political but sometimes moral pain in order to serve well.”
The fallout from the episode has changed how Buttigieg views more complicated situations: “I think I lost my innocence about the idea that being principled or having the right intentions will either bring everybody around to agreeing with you or even allow you to be completely settled that what happened was the right thing,” he said.
He said the situation with the police department gave him a different perspective on matters of race, and made him think about what more he could do as mayor to make a difference. “Not that my intentions or policy views had changed, but because my sense of urgency changed because I realized what was on the line in a more visceral way.”
Buttigieg, who has been talking a lot about exclusion lately, said he is trying with his campaign now to make sure he connects with people across the country — especially with people who know what it’s like to be marginalized or excluded from the norms, politics, and values of the more dominant society and culture. He said that the importance of those connections is going to be “especially true” if the next president is going to be a white man.
“I can represent obviously a certain community, but the real important [question] is whether I can represent every community in some way,” he said. “And that’s what every candidate ought to be able to demonstrate. Then the next president better be really good at making everyone feel included and lifted up. Through policy, but also through that moral leadership. I think it’s where a president earns their paycheck.”
His views on race in this particular moment, he said, have been partially shaped by The Bluest Eye, the 1970 novel by Toni Morrison. The novel tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl living in Lorain, Ohio, who wishes and even prays that her eyes would turn blue. Buttigieg, in talking about the book’s impact on his life, offered a story about volunteering at a domestic violence shelter, something he warned “sounds really white.”
His job volunteering was to keep children occupied as their parents received assistance. He described a little girl, not far apart in age from the character in The Bluest Eye, who he said was intelligent, fierce, a little combative, and clearly in tune with her own vulnerability. “Out of nowhere she says to me, ‘You have beautiful eyes.’ I said ‘Thanks, so do you,’ returning the compliment, and she starts crying. Just at that. She was not crying because she was moved by the compliment, but crying because I had clearly aroused something she was insecure about. You just want to grab her by the shoulders and tell her that she could have a different vision of what it is to be beautiful.”
His explanation about Morrison’s novel extends to his feelings on the presidency. Buttigieg wants to run for president in a way that allows his supporters to shape how his presidency and campaign will look.
And perhaps that’s why Buttigieg wants to connect in part through empathy. Asked what someone running for president can do to make a group like trans women of color, who face rising, fatal violence in their community, feel more wholly a part of American society, Buttigieg said the added layers of their identity heightened the need for understanding.
“I don’t know anything about what it’s like” to be a black trans woman, he said, “other than I know it’s hard. But I can draw on something that I know from a very different life story to motivate me to stand up for her, especially if it’s challenging.”
For now, he just wants people of color to join his campaign, not because they see a sure thing in his candidacy as it already exists but to help him make it into something that will fit what they aspire to.
“In asking people to become a part of this, I’m asking them not just to support us in some way — but to help us build it. That’s how it’ll become the thing we want it to be.”