A New Test for Pete Buttigieg: Does He Feel Their Pain?


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — As a town hall spiraled into chaos with Mayor Pete Buttigieg facing insults and angry challenges, and as a moderator pleaded for calm, Mr. Buttigieg went deep into his quiet place.

South Bend’s two-term mayor, appearing diminutive at times behind a table on a high school stage, maintained a self-contained cool while fielding questions on Sunday after a fatal police shooting of a black man plunged his city and his presidential campaign deep into crisis.

Mr. Buttigieg’s public demeanor dealing with a homegrown crisis over the last week has drawn criticism that he has failed to convey empathy toward distraught citizens, and that therefore he is less committed to solving a problem than salvaging his political viability.

Mr. Buttigieg, a 37-year-old former whiz kid, has never dealt with significant personal failure. Now, just days before the first Democratic debates, he faces a test of whether the voters and donors who powered his national rise will question whether he has the emotional intelligence to lead.

After the town hall, the mayor evinced personal pain while speaking to reporters. “I hope people can see what it’s like for a city to face up to the demons that racism has unleashed,” he said.

But to many political strategists, it seemed Mr. Buttigieg had come up short on relatability after a meteoric rise in the Democratic 2020 field, which has been fueled by his even-tempered, coolly biting responses in nationally televised interviews and forums.

“In politics, as in life, everyone’s strength is also their weakness,’’ said David Axelrod, the chief strategist for former President Barack Obama, who has served as a political mentor for Mr. Buttigieg. “Pete’s appeal is that he is cool, calm and thoughtful — a stark contrast to the churn of an endlessly divisive president. But the flip side is that, earnest as he is, he’s not overly emotive, which didn’t serve him well here.”

Well aware that the future of his candidacy is dim if he fails to attract significant African-American support, Mr. Buttigieg emailed a statement to supporters Monday seeking to amplify a message he has delivered since the June 16 shooting: that communities of color have good reasons to fear and distrust America’s police because of systemic racism.

“Hearts are broken,” he said of his hometown. “My heart is broken.”

Mr. Buttigieg was headed to South Florida on Monday for fund-raising events before this week’s debate in Miami.

By instinct and by training, Mr. Buttigieg, the son of two Notre Dame professors, is a technocrat, one in whom political ambition has burned since he was a schoolboy. Working as a McKinsey consultant after graduating from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar, he was trained in performance management. When he first explored running for mayor at 28, he wowed many South Bend power brokers with his grasp of policy detail in a report called “Benchmarking South Bend” that predicted economic decline.

He came into office versed in data and analysis, and as a closeted gay man who kept his sexuality secret from the public for his first four years in office.

In his fourth month on the job, he fired South Bend’s first black police chief, the root of some African-American residents’ distrust of him, and a decision he admitted later was made on dryly legalistic grounds, without concern for the human fallout.

But over two terms, Mr. Buttigieg has evolved into a more feeling leader, both allies and foes of his said, even if he has never become a feel-your-pain politician like President Bill Clinton. His affect is sometimes compared to the professorial detachment of Mr. Obama, which in the end became a liability for even some of his supporters.

Still, Mr. Buttigieg has shown potential to inhabit the role of consoler-in-chief after tragedies. When a gunman massacred Muslim worshipers in New Zealand this year, the mayor wrote in an open letter to Muslims in South Bend, “I want you to know that this entire city has its arms around you.”

On the presidential trail, Mr. Buttigieg has presented himself as a bridge to a new political era and has largely avoided delving into policy specifics. And while he has repeatedly invoked his own experiences as a gay man and a Navy reservist who served seven months in Afghanistan, he has not engaged in the kind of deeply personal interactions that have animated other candidates.

“When I saw him, I wasn’t blown away and after I thought about it, it’s because he’s exactly the same person he is in the media,” said David Goldman, a Democratic donor from Boston who said he was underwhelmed after attending a fund-raiser for Mr. Buttigieg in April. “I’ve met a lot of political leaders over the years and sometimes when you meet them in person, you get a different sense, a more personal sense, of who they are. With Pete, in my limited experience, what you see is what you get.”

A star on cable television and social media, Mr. Buttigieg, who would be the first millennial president, has shown himself at times to be less adept at connecting one-to-one than he does in his writing and speeches.

[Here is the latest on the state of the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.]

During his first entry into national politics, when he sought to lead the Democratic National Committee in 2017, Mr. Buttigieg raised an impressive amount of money for someone with little institutional support, yet struck many party activists as arrogant and unwilling to devote the time to build personal relationships.

“He was not someone who was very cordial or warm or willing to sit down and talk to people,” said Will Hailer, who was the national political director for Representative Keith Ellison’s campaign for party chairman.

Chris Reeves, a D.N.C. member from Kansas, said Mr. Buttigieg did not spend much time addressing party members’ individual concerns.

“Pete was one of those who was like, ‘Let me give you the super broad brush,’ and that didn’t go over well with some people,” Mr. Reeves said.

During an interview last month, Mr. Buttigieg described his newfound stature in the first tier of Democratic presidential candidates as “kind of an out-of-body experience.”

“You’re sort of finding yourself everywhere, so that part of it is odd,” he said. “The big thing that’s strange is realizing that people must be putting a lot of their thoughts and hopes onto you.”

The crisis in South Bend began when a white officer fatally shot a black suspect, Eric Logan, after responding to a report of a man breaking into cars downtown. The authorities said Mr. Logan had a knife and raised it toward the officer, but there are unanswered questions, principally why the officer had not turned on his body camera.

On Friday night, in a preview of Sunday’s raucous town hall, Mr. Buttigieg strode into the middle of a chaotic crowd of protesters and grieving relatives of Mr. Logan. He kept unflappably calm as some people vented their hurt and rage toward him.

While some in the Twitterverse who watched videos of the encounter criticized the mayor’s low affect, saying he did not relate to others’ pain, other observers said they saw a leader defusing a tense and difficult situation through patience and respect.

“I do think he’s caring,” said Vernado Mallone, who organized the Friday protest. “I marched side by side with this man for eight blocks and we spoke on a personal level.”

Both a brother of Mr. Logan, Tyree Bonds, and Mr. Logan’s widow, Shafonia Logan, voiced support for the mayor during the march, Mr. Mallone said.

How much impact the crisis will have on Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign remains an open question, said Howard Dean, the former Democratic Party chairman whose own quest for the 2004 nomination ended after a famous scream that many judged to be overly emotive.

“This is a really tough problem and I think he’s acquitting himself as best as any white person can,” Mr. Dean said. “It’s a minefield. This is a time where he could get knocked down, and we’ll see if he does.”


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