It was a humid Sunday in June, a quiet afternoon that Pete Buttigieg knew would not remain quiet. “You know, there are always going to be ups and downs,” the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told me as he puttered through the kitchen of the century-old Victorian home he shares with his husband of a year, Chasten. “You can’t just have an uninterrupted meteoric rise.”
Buddy and Truman, the Twitter-certified “First Dogs of South Bend”, were lounging on hardwood floors as Buttigieg poured coffee into a mug and settled in at his dining-room table. In a few hours, he would be speaking to a noisy town hall meeting at Washington High School, on his city’s predominantly black west side, where he would be called upon – shouted upon – to answer questions about what the cable networks had variously called “Mayor Pete’s Crisis at Home” and the “Nightmare in South Bend”.
A week before, a white South Bend Police officer, sergeant Ryan O’Neill, had shot a 54-year-old African-American man, Eric Logan, after the officer responded to a report of a suspicious person going through cars in the parking lot of an apartment complex. O’Neill claimed that Logan approached him with a knife, but his body camera was turned off, so there was no footage to back up his account. Logan was later pronounced dead at Memorial Hospital in South Bend.
The killing set off days of protest aimed at the local police, city officials and Buttigieg, whose unlikely surge into the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates had been blunted by ambivalence from African-American voters, among whom he had been polling close to zero nationally, even before the shooting. No shortage of pundits offered theories on Buttigieg’s “black problem”, as the former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Marcia Fudge, called it in The Daily Beast after the incident. They posited some combination of Buttigieg’s lesser name recognition, the reluctance of more socially conservative blacks to embrace an openly gay candidate, and the perception that the Harvard- and Oxford-bred sensation was just another privileged white politician in a hurry.
But Buttigieg has also had a fraught relationship with the black community of South Bend for much of his eight years as mayor, especially over matters of policing – a fact that the national media, after months of laudatory coverage of Buttigieg’s mayoral successes, now began to understand. Up to that point, Buttigieg had mostly confronted race-related questions from a “safe, aspirational remove”. He was quizzed at a Fox News town hall meeting in New Hampshire a few weeks earlier (by a white woman from Vermont) about what he would do to better reach voters of colour; the host, Chris Wallace, cited a poll showing that less than 1 per cent of non-white primary voters supported him. “It’s a really important strategic but also ethical question for our campaign,” Buttigieg ruminated.
He has quoted the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and shared lofty-sounding ideas like his “Douglass Plan” (“to improve black American prosperity”). He is diligent about promising his friendly white crowds that he understands the urgency of civil rights as an unrealised national goal. “Racial inequality,” he assures his audiences, “either will be solved in our lifetime or it will blow apart the American project.”
Buttigieg has a knack for reducing the intractable issues of American life to some academic-sounding “project”, as if racial inequality were just another puzzle for the smart kids at McKinsey & Company – where Buttigieg worked as a consultant after college – to solve. He is also deft about acknowledging that this is exactly what he is doing: noting his own privileged detachment as he is exercising it. “There’s a certain luxury associated with being able to step back and be analytical about any of this,” Buttigieg told me. I had been checking in periodically with Buttigieg through the spring, a period in which said “meteoric rise” would accelerate in earnest. A video clip of him speaking Norwegian was bouncing across social media; the novel concept of supporting “a Maltese-American left-handed Episcopalian gay war veteran mayor Millennial”, as he described himself, was proving irresistible to a certain sector of the educated white electorate.
The luxury of Buttigieg’s “safe remove” ended with the shooting of Eric Logan. The mayor woke to the news before dawn on June 16 – America’s Father’s Day, the first since his own father, Joseph Buttigieg, a Maltese immigrant, died in January. That scrambled Buttigieg’s plan to take Sunday off in New York with Chasten to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, which also fell on that day. “The first thing you hear is that there was an officer-involved shooting, which is bad but not the first time it’s happened,” Buttigieg recounted a week later. “Then you hear the guy’s in surgery, then you realise, okay, he may not live. Then you hear the deceased is black and the cop is white. And you keep getting bits of information, some of it accurate, some you’ve got to run down. And it didn’t take long to realise I needed to get home.”
Buttigieg made his way back to South Bend on that Sunday, cancelling a Monday appearance at an LGBTQ gala in Manhattan and fundraising events in California that Tuesday and Wednesday. He had planned a return to South Carolina, where the state’s Democratic Party was holding its convention in Columbia, that Friday and Saturday. The weekend featured the “World Famous Fish Fry”, a sweaty mob scene of a tradition hosted by Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the House majority whip and the highest-ranking African-American member of Congress, and attended by nearly all of the Democratic presidential hopefuls. But the fish fry conflicted with a hastily scheduled Justice for South Bend march through downtown to honour Logan.
Buttigieg had very much wanted to be in South Carolina, the early-voting state in which 60 per cent of the party’s primary electorate is African-American – the place, as Buttigieg puts it, “where most Democratic candidates try to find their voice on race”. Instead, South Bend’s black community was calling for the mayor to stay home and listen. “You got a plane to catch somewhere?” one angry rallygoer yelled at the grounded candidate, one of many who would taunt his higher ambitions.
“You can seek to do the right thing,” Buttigieg said, “and be reasonably confident you made the less bad choice and get your ass handed to you all the same.” That was the nature of being a mayor, he added – a far more tactile and hands-on job than, say, being a member of Congress, for whom running for president would not necessarily entail more than missing a few floor votes. “A lot of it is just being there to absorb a lot of pain,” Buttigieg said of his ultimate decision to attend the rally in South Bend. “It’s not like Eric Logan’s mother is going to be happy about anything we come up with.”
Some of Buttigieg’s giddier supporters and profilers have likened him to Barack Obama, not just in his appeal to a new generation of political consumers but also in his intent to create a new way of thinking and discussing politics. He is the next level of anti-politician politician, quintessentially political but running against what he sees as the counterproductive outrage that seems to have taken hold in American politics, particularly in the Trump era. “Our response is going to be to model something completely different,” Buttigieg told me.
And indeed, he possesses an Obama-like ability to wield cool detachment – impassioned and remote at the same time, calmly in a rush. Even his execution of the necessary and grubby candidate activities, like fundraising, has an earnestly above-it-all air. “Hey,” he began a blast email appeal to his supporters on the eve of the last Federal Election Commission fundraising deadline. “You know that we don’t subscribe to inauthentic urgency here at Pete for America. That’s not why we’re here. We are here to build trusted relationships.” He then hit up his “trusted relationships” for donations.
Like most presidential candidates, Buttigieg published a book on the eve of his candidacy, part blueprint and part memoir of an ordinary and yet extraordinary life. Unlike most candidates’ books, Shortest Way Home is actually a decent read and even seems to have been written by the candidate himself (he confirms this). In it, Buttigieg describes his rampage through the checkpoints of American high achievement. The son of Notre Dame professors, he attended Harvard, Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, worked at McKinsey, served as an intelligence officer in the United States Navy Reserves and was deployed in Afghanistan while serving as mayor of his hometown, an office that he was elected to in 2011 at age 29.
No sitting mayor has ever been elected president; it’s rare they even seek the office at all, much less from a jurisdiction as little as South Bend, the fourth-largest city in Indiana. Yet the smallness of the town lends it an allegorical credibility. “The Bend” could be anywhere, and that’s the point. In the telling of its most famous current resident, South Bend’s story became an accessible, replicable tale of a proud city that was in touch with its history and confident enough in its future that its mayor was not promising to make anything great again.
“This hurts,” Buttigieg told me at his home before heading out to the town hall to discuss Eric Logan. “This really hurts.” He seemed to be straining to convince me, acknowledging that he is not always “symptomatic” in exhibiting emotion. He got mixed reviews from theatre-critic pundits who found his “performance” at previous Logan-related events to be lacking on the Bill Clinton scale of “I feel your pain” empathy-showing. This is not a new critique of Buttigieg, who has quite clearly contemplated the subject. “I think a lot of time when people are talking about what they want to see you do emotionally, what they really are asking is that they want you to make them feel a certain way.”
Buttigieg offered his own disposition as being consistent with the aura he wants to project. “A big part of what makes this campaign work is an ability to make people feel things they haven’t felt in a while,” he said. “One of them is hope. Another one of them is calm.”
Neither quality was in evidence in the crowd at Washington High School. “We’re not running from this,” Buttigieg insisted there. After about 45 minutes, the gathering had pretty much devolved: shouting and cross-shouting and a few near-confrontations where it seemed as if complete bedlam might ensue. No one was asking Mayor Pete to speak Norwegian. “Get back to South Carolina,” a man in the auditorium yelled at the mayor. Buttigieg took his abuse with hands placed in a prayer-like repose over his lips, sitting perfectly still, except for his shoulders, which rocked ever so slightly.
Buttigieg’s campaign has, to this point, been short on policy details and heavy on “laying out the values”, as he often says. In watching Buttigieg, the values are more about the vehicle: that is, Mayor Pete himself. It’s easy to overlook that the campaign has largely been personality-based to this point – much more about the Buttigieg résumé, quirkiness and style than any ideological or policy direction. But part of that style is self-conscious humility, the idea that while the mayor might be a singular generational hope, at least he’s sheepish about it. Buttigieg has perfected the cultivated modesty of the Millennial striver.
I talked to Buttigieg for a final time in July by phone. It had been nearly four weeks since the Logan shooting, and he was about to reveal his oft-mentioned Douglass Plan. It involves measures to “dismantle a fundamentally racist criminal-justice system” and “directly attack the racial wealth gap, building wealth in black communities”. He told me that the Douglass Plan had been in the works for months, though the Logan incident might have given its release more urgency and attention. “I am perhaps the white candidate who will be asked most frequently about race,” Buttigieg said – a curious statement given that former US vice president Joe Biden seems to have spent much of the past month being questioned about little else.
Despite all the attention he has received, Buttigieg remains very much a long shot in the race. He has in recent polls dropped solidly behind the top group of candidates: Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, the latter two of whom have inherited the star status Buttigieg enjoyed for much of the spring. His fundraising ensures he will be around for a while, and his performance in recent debates was generally well regarded – especially his blunt assessment of the “mess” he left behind in South Bend. But the joyride of his early campaign months now calls for a next turn.
Buttigieg said he will be releasing more detailed policy plans. (In August, he unveiled proposals on healthcare and job creation.) “We’ve laid out the values, now we lay out the details,” he said. I heard a flurry of screeches and beeping over the phone in the background. The mayor of South Bend was in a hurry, as ever, and announced that he had to jump on another thing. He was in a car, in Washington for the day. He was not sure where they were or were headed, exactly. “I’m glimpsing at some shiny buildings,” he said.
Edited version of a story first published in the New York Times magazine. © 2019 The New York Times.