A major piece of Pete Buttigieg’s past remains a mystery to voters.
For nearly three years, he worked at McKinsey & Company, an elite management consulting firm with offices around the world. It was work that took him, he has said, to Iraq and Afghanistan. And for years after that, in his early campaigns for public office, Buttigieg held up his stint at McKinsey as a selling point and proof that he was a business-friendly Democrat, while only vaguely describing what he did and never revealing his clients.
A deeper understanding of his time there a decade ago would be relevant to evaluating the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who’s now trying to prove he has the experience to be president. But Buttigieg continues to keep most details a secret, citing a confidentiality agreement. He also now describes the job — which informed his views on business issues — as “not something that I think is essential in my story.”
Asked by BuzzFeed News this week if Buttigieg would be willing to provide more information about his role at the firm, spokesperson Chris Meagher confirmed that the campaign on at least two occasions has asked McKinsey about ways around the nondisclosure pact.
Buttigieg’s work “is largely covered by a non-disclosure agreement,” Meagher said Friday. “Previously, the campaign had reached out to McKinsey to inquire about what the NDA encompasses, and this week again reached out to McKinsey about the possibility of being released from the NDA.”
A McKinsey spokesperson declined to comment about Buttigieg’s work there — the firm only would confirm he was hired in June 2007 and left in March 2010. The spokesperson also wouldn’t comment about the likelihood of Buttigieg being released from a confidentiality pact.
McKinsey has become known for working with authoritarian regimes and taking on other ethically complicated projects. A New York Times report last year focused on its work for governments or state-owned companies in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. A recent lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company that makes OxyContin raised questions about the firm’s role in perpetuating the opioid crisis.
Other White House contenders have seen their private sector work scrutinized. Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who entered the Democratic race this week, already is answering for his work at Bain Capital — the same private equity firm that tripped up Republican Mitt Romney during his 2012 run. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has disclosed the names of companies she advised as a bankruptcy lawyer and consultant, and she’s been scrutinized in the press and by some of her rivals for the particulars of that work.
The secrecy around Buttigieg’s work with McKinsey runs counter to a presidential bid he and his advisers have built around accessibility and transparency. Buttigieg has been inviting reporters to join him for long stretches on his campaign bus and ask any questions. No subject is off-limits, and McKinsey is a popular one. But Buttigieg offers little that isn’t already public. He issued a gentle criticism of the firm’s recent work during a September tour of Iowa.
“I think they’ve made a lot of poor choices, especially in the last few years,” he said. “I left about 10 years ago. But it’s really frustrating, as somebody who worked there, to see some of the decisions that they’ve made.”
Buttigieg has in the past described his time at McKinsey, which followed a Harvard education and a Rhodes scholarship at the University of Oxford, as a sort of finishing school. In Shortest Way Home, the political memoir he published earlier this year, he wrote that the job was a chance “to learn what wasn’t on the page and get an education in the real world, if there is such a thing.”
The job also allowed Buttigieg to present himself to Republicans as a “businessman” and a different kind of Democrat when he ran for Indiana state treasurer in 2010.
“My obstacle was: Here was a person nobody knew, especially early on,” Jeff Harris, who managed Buttigieg’s unsuccessful campaign that year, told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “The Harvard, and Oxford, and McKinsey background made him stand out. If nothing else, people would say, 'I want to meet this interesting person.' I would tell people ‘invest early.’ I was telling my parents all the time: ‘He’s going to be president one day, just wait and see.’”
Buttigieg took his McKinsey pitch to a 2010 South Bend forum sponsored by groups aligned with the nascent tea party — an audience partial to the Republican incumbent.
“I did math for a living around economics — the economics of energy and the economics of stabilizing very tough places around the world in order to make sure there’s less violence there,” Buttigieg told the crowd that night. “But I got to thinking, if I’m any good at stabilizing economies, maybe I ought to try to help stabilize the economy right here in Indiana.”
Buttigieg lost in a landslide, but he continued to emphasize his private sector credentials the following year in his winning run for mayor. The local chamber of commerce, citing the McKinsey experience, waded into a mayoral race for the first time and endorsed Buttigieg.
"I got my street smarts working in war zones on economic stabilization,” Buttigieg told the South Bend Tribune in October 2011, “and I think that experience stands up next to anybody's."
These days, Buttigieg brushes by that part of bio, if he mentions it at all. It’s handiest when he’s attempting to distance himself from the two leading liberals in the Democratic primary: Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist from Vermont.
“They’ll try the socialist thing, but the thing is: I got started in the private sector,” he said of expected attacks from President Donald Trump and his allies during a September town hall forum in Newton, Iowa.
On his bus the next morning, Buttigieg assessed his McKinsey experience in starkly political terms and calculations. “One thing that’s clear is that most voters want to know that you are a capitalist as well as progressive,” he responded when asked how prepared he was to defend his work there, if and when the other Democratic candidates make it an issue.
“To me,” he added, “the Democratic part is really important, right? That’s why I say I’m a Democratic capitalist. The fact that I cut my teeth in the business world may relate to that.”
When another reporter asked about McKinsey later that day, Buttigieg downplayed its relevance to his political and professional life.
“The majority of my career has been in public service,” he said. “It’s not something that I think is essential in my story. But also there’s a reason why I write about it quite a bit about in my book, and there’s a reason why I discuss it whenever it comes up — because I learned a lot there and it shaped my fluency in business issues.”
Buttigieg devoted most of a 10-page chapter in Shortest Way Home to his work at McKinsey.
“Back to the US in 2007,” he wrote, “I landed a job in Chicago at McKinsey & Company, and my classroom was everywhere — a conference room, a serene corporate office, the break room of a retail store, a safe house in Iraq, or an airplane seat — any place that could accommodate me and my laptop.”
The book briefly referenced — and Buttigieg occasionally mentions — work on efforts to promote energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He went into substantive detail on only one project: grocery pricing for an unidentified client in Canada. But he offered nothing further on the safe house in Iraq, easily the most tantalizing tidbit in the chapter. And he did not elaborate, beyond identifying himself as a “civilian adviser,” on the war zone economic development he trumpeted while running for state treasurer and mayor. McKinsey had US defense contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq under the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, ABC News reported in June, though it’s not clear Buttigieg was involved with these specific projects. (He later served in Afghanistan as a Navy intelligence officer.)
Buttigieg wrote reverentially of “the Firm” but saw his future was in public service.
“No matter how much I liked my clients and my colleagues,” he wrote, “delivering for them could not furnish the deep level of purpose that I craved.”
McKinsey consultants are now delivering for him: Its employees have donated more to him than to any other Democrat running for president.