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Top Cory Booker Supporters Are Accusing Pete Buttigieg Of "Chasing Ambulances"

Iowa officials expect a personal touch and a “grieving period.” Buttigieg’s quick calls struck some as “a gut punch.”

Last updated on January 23, 2020, at 4:41 p.m. ET

Posted on January 23, 2020, at 3:54 p.m. ET

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

DES MOINES — The phone calls to Amy Nielsen came around two hours apart.

It was last Monday around 12 p.m., not long after the news broke, when her phone lit up with his name. By then, Nielsen considered Cory Booker “part of [her] family.” He knew her husband. He knew her kids. He knew her kids’ friends. She was the first state representative in Iowa to endorse Booker. So the end of his campaign felt — “and I’m not exaggerating,” she said this week — like “a death.” On the phone, Booker assured her they would stay in touch. “I’m in your life forever,” he told her. “We’re family now.”

The next call came around 2:30 p.m., this time from an unknown number. Nielsen was at the capitol in Des Moines and let the call go to voicemail. What she heard in the one-minute recording, she said in an interview this week, came as a “gut punch.”

It was Pete Buttigieg, calling to seek Nielsen’s support now that her candidate had made the decision to “step aside.”

“What he said was not appropriate, and calling me four hours after [Booker dropped out] was not appropriate,” said Nielsen, who provided a copy of Buttigieg’s voicemail.

“It was a gut punch — like, really? He did not ‘step aside’ for you,” she said. “Like, wow, that’s some nerve right there.”

Later that night, she said, Nielsen heard from one of Booker’s field organizers who said she had already been contacted by the Buttigieg campaign to go door-knock.

Nielsen, a 42-year-old Iowa Democrat who has served in the legislature since 2016, was one of at least six top Booker endorsers who had received calls from Buttigieg the day the campaign ended. It is not uncommon for candidates to try to win over a fallen rival’s supporters — Booker did the same after Sen. Kamala Harris left the race late last year — and some endorsers said they weren’t bothered to hear from him. But for Nielsen and at least three of Booker’s top backers in a state where Democrats expect a personal touch, the timing and content of the calls struck them as tactless and insensitive.

At the end of his voicemail, Buttigieg left a phone number for one of his staffers and asked Nielsen to schedule a time to talk. “I hope we’ll connect down the line,” he told her. “Thanks again.”

With 11 days until the nominating process begins here in February, countless Iowa Democrats are facing a raw and intractable reality: the end. In many cases, this year’s historically large field has lent an atypically large role to endorsers and supporters, with more space and time to grow close to the candidates. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton had dozens of endorsers in Iowa alone. For younger leaders in Iowa Democratic politics like Nielsen, this is their first time playing in a competitive primary as elected officials.

In Iowa, the nominating process is as close as it is personal. Feelings get hurt. There is, Democrats here say, a real “grieving period.”

When Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the race hours before the Liberty and Justice dinner, the premier event in presidential politics here, staffers and volunteers gathered near the event site, sobbing and hugging. After she left the race, Harris flew to Iowa to personally thank her team. And last weekend, five days after Booker ended the campaign, his young staff gathered at a dive bar in Des Moines, still dressed in their candidate’s signature blue, red, and black.

A spokesperson for Buttigieg, Matt Corridoni, said the former mayor has “a great deal of respect for Sen. Booker, the campaign he ran, and the voters who supported him and continue to support his vision.”

Sue Dvorsky, a former Iowa Democratic Party chair whose endorsement lent Harris a significant early boost in the state, warned other campaigns to back off after the California senator left the race. Right away, Harris organizers heard from rival staffers, driving Dvorsky to express her outrage on Twitter.

I don't know who needs to hear this but stay the f*×^ away from the Harris field. Of course you want them to work for you. They're freaking amazing. And sad. And grieving. Sit all the way down. They know where you live. They'll get back to. Or not.

“For all of us — for the candidates, for supporters, for staff — people need to tread very, very carefully,” Dvorsky said in an interview, cautioning that the process will play out for supporters of all but one of the remaining 12 candidates in the race.

“As we move forward in this thing, the way it happens is incredibly important for how we roll into Milwaukee and how we roll out of Milwaukee,” she said in reference to the Democratic National Convention, where party officials hope to rally millions of voters together around a single nominee.

“This is going to happen 12 more times. For some of the candidates, it won’t cause much of a ripple. But if Andrew Yang gets out,” said Dvorsky, “there are people who are really, really, really enamored of his ideas — and it will crush them.”

Monica Kurth, a state representative from Davenport who endorsed Booker in August, said she was “speechless” when she picked up the phone and heard from Buttigieg about four hours after the campaign ended. “I was in shock, and afterward I was thinking, you know, That did not feel very good. It was too soon. It was hurtful,” she said.

Kurth said she understood that with only a matter of weeks until the caucuses, perhaps the Buttigieg campaign was acting with a new sense of urgency. But she didn’t hear from rival campaigns until “days later.” (Other Booker supporters similarly reported hearing from staffers from Joe Biden's and Amy Klobuchar’s campaigns after a few days, according to Iowa Starting Line.)

“Don't go chasing ambulances, you know?” Kurth said.

Two other Booker endorsers said the calls felt reflective of Buttigieg’s entry into the race as an ambitious young mayor of South Bend, the fourth-largest city in Indiana — reminiscent, in a sense, of Booker’s own rise through Newark politics 15 years ago. Buttigieg celebrated his 38th birthday on the campaign trail here last week.

“I thought it was kind of a rookie move,” another Booker endorser said. “I wasn't offended per se until I found out our organizers were hearing from his people right away.”

Mark Smith, the Democratic minority leader of the Iowa House of Representatives who served on Booker’s state steering committee, said he wasn’t upset to hear from Buttigieg that afternoon. “I didn't feel that anything was inappropriate,” Smith said. “Politics is always 'damned if you do, damned if you don’t.' If people are interested in your support and they wait until later, then they’re subject to criticism that they waited too long.”

Over his 11 months in the race, Booker amassed one of the most impressive lists of Iowa endorsements, setting off a race to win their support over the week that followed. Nielsen said she doesn’t plan to endorse another candidate before the caucuses. Kurth backed Klobuchar earlier this week. Two other top Booker supporters, state Reps. Jennifer Konfrst and Heather Matson, endorsed Elizabeth Warren this week.

Dvorsky, the former Harris supporter, said the calls were “unfortunate.”

“The mayor made a mistake. Mistakes will get made. They're mistakes of inexperience,” she said. “Pete is sometimes a little callow. He is a little inexperienced. It's some of the crap that came out of my mouth when I was 38. But it is a very, very hard thing to run for president. And so mistakes get made.”

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