Pete Buttigieg was struggling to be taken seriously as a first-time candidate for office in September 2010.
So with the tea party taking off, the then-28-year-old unknown running for Indiana state treasurer showed up at a South Bend church for a Meet the Candidates Night hosted by two groups aligned with the populist, conservative, Barack Obama–bashing movement that would power the next decade of Republican politics.
“I have to admit, as a Democrat, many of my friends and supporters looked at me as if I was absolutely nuts when I suggested that I would be coming tonight to speak with a group that’s often identified as the tea party,” Buttigieg said as he stared down from the pulpit.
“There are some, especially in my party, who think that the tea party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party,” he continued. “But there are many others who believe that the tea party is motivated by real concerns about the direction of our government, and the responsiveness of our government to citizens, and above all the frustration with business as usual. That is what motivated me to run. And so while we may come from often very different perspectives, I believe we might find that we have a lot in common on that front.”
Buttigieg lost the 2010 treasurer’s race but won the first of two terms as South Bend’s mayor the following year. Now, from that small-town springboard, he’s a surprisingly strong Democratic candidate for president — polls show he’s emerged as a frontrunner in Iowa, the first caucus state — trying to establish himself as a label-defying moderate. A campaign that grabbed attention early on with big lefty ideas (abolishing the electoral college, expanding the Supreme Court) has lately embraced more centrist vibes (Medicare for all who want it). And Buttigieg’s recent judgment about the “failures of the old normal” has been interpreted, despite his protests, as a subtle rebuke of the Obama years and, by extension, Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president and Buttigieg’s chief competition for moderate Democratic primary voters.
As the race and message shift, Buttigieg critics and skeptics and those who work for his rivals are now parsing his 2010 tea party appearance, particularly the suggestion that “the tea party is motivated by real concerns.” The video, referenced in a New York Times story last month and in a BuzzFeed News piece last week, caught fire among Democratic activists Monday night on Twitter, prompting a response from the Buttigieg campaign.
Buttigieg’s comments at the 2010 forum were “nearly identical” to comments Obama made about the tea party around that time, when the then-president said there were “a lot” of people involved in the movement with “very real and sincere concerns” about government spending and reach, rapid response director Sean Savett tweeted.
“This clip has already been widely circulated and reported on,” Savett added in an email Tuesday. “When Pete ran for state treasurer in 2010, his opponent wouldn’t debate him, so he attended a 'Meet The Candidates' event because it was his only opportunity to share the stage with his opponent. As Pete makes clear in the footage, he 'comes from a very different perspective' and doesn't share anything close to the view of the tea party, before acknowledging the frustrations many people felt about government being run as business as usual.”
The tea party was a relatively young movement then but already morphing from a loose, anti-tax grassroots organization to a national network with big money behind it that helped Republicans retake control of the House that November. Birtherism — the racist canard that Obama was not a US-born citizen — found a home there.
Those who remember Buttigieg’s outreach at the 2010 forum say he wasn’t a tea party follower or sympathizer. One of the event’s organizers recently called him a “socialist.” Rather, they saw someone eager to be on equal footing with the Republican incumbent, Richard Mourdock, in front of any audience that would have him.
“He certainly wasn’t going to let his opponent come to his hometown and not be there,” Jeff Harris, who managed Buttigieg’s 2010 campaign, said in a recent telephone interview with BuzzFeed News. “I think it was an opportunity to be on the same stage with the incumbent when Treasurer Mourdock was ducking and dodging at every opportunity.”
(A debate two years later sunk Mourdock’s US Senate bid when he answered an abortion question by saying that pregnancy resulting from rape is “something God intended.”)
Indiana had narrowly backed Obama in 2008 but was still regarded as a largely Republican state come the 2010 midterm elections. Buttigieg referenced the tea party — and the anxieties fueling it — as early as June of that year, in his acceptance speech the day he earned the Democratic nomination for state treasurer.
“Our problems are grave, and they waste no time in growing deeper,” Buttigieg said, according to the text available at an archived version of his old campaign website. “Unemployment is at crisis levels, pink slips are going out to teachers all over the state, and retirement funds have vanished to the tune of billions. Up to now, we have handled these problems with our characteristic patience. But ten years into this uncertain century, in a year of shooting wars and oil spills, tornadoes and tea parties, our patience has finally run out.”
At the South Bend forum a few months later, Buttigieg presented himself as an outsider with business and economic development savvy. He feigned sheepishness as he offered a piece of his bio that in certain company would announce him as an elitist: “Somebody made a mistake and gave me a Rhodes scholarship, and I used it to go overseas and learn economics.”
“I’m obviously new; I’m obviously young,” Buttigieg said later as he concluded his introductory speech. “I obviously do not represent the status quo or an old way of doing business, but I hope that I’ll be given the chance because I really believe in this stuff. I really think it matters.”
Buttigieg’s overtures to tea party voters continued after the forum. A few weeks later, he told the Indianapolis Star that the "jury is out" on whether the tea party could function as a nonpartisan movement. “If you're in a throw-the-bums-out mentality,” he reasoned, “then you ought to be more favorable to me, who's a business person who has never been in office."
Kelly Havens, who emceed and helped organize the South Bend event, told BuzzFeed News in an email that she was impressed that Buttigieg came.
“He was most congenial [and] appreciative of the opportunity to speak, and spoke in terms that drew on common ground between parties,” Havens wrote. “The audience still was pro-Mourdock, but our board thought Buttigieg acquitted himself well.”
Havens also viewed Buttigieg’s presidential candidacy positively — to a point.
“Buttigieg strikes me as by far the brightest of the current Democrat presidential candidates,” she wrote. “He hasn't seemed nearly as corrupt and embedded in the local political machine as his predecessors in the South Bend Mayor's office. He seems to value faith and is also a talented pianist (which is my vocation)! But all of that being said, he is thoroughly a socialist which I believe is a huge mistake for our country to pursue any further.”