Buttigieg under pressure as tensions rise in South Bend

Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSunday shows — Mulvaney seeks to tamp down firestorm over quid pro quo comments, Doral decision Buttigieg says he wasn't comfortable with Clinton attack on Gabbard Buttigieg: Trump undermining US credibility 'is going to cost us for years and years' MORE’s campaign has reached a crossroads just days before the first Democratic primary debates as the South Bend, Ind., mayor faces a racially charged crisis at home that threatens to consume his run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Buttigieg, who has been on and off the campaign trail for the past week after a white police officer in South Bend shot and killed a black man, says he still plans to participate in Thursday’s presidential debate in Miami.

But the unrest in South Bend hangs over his candidacy and marks the latest in a string of controversies that have opened him up to criticism over his management of the police department and how his decisions and policies have affected African Americans, who make up about a quarter of the city.

“We’ve been talking with Pete for years about the problems within the police department,” said Henry Davis Jr., a former city councilman and a Democrat. “We’ve argued with him. We’ve pleaded with him to take care of these issues and he’s done nothing but close his eyes and turn his head and say all is well. This is the fruit of his labor.”

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Last week, Sgt. Ryan O’Neil, who is white, shot and killed Eric Logan, a black man, claiming that Logan approached him with a knife. O’Neil did not have his body camera on for the encounter.

The shooting has ignited protests in South Bend. Tensions boiled over on Sunday at a town hall event with Buttigieg and city’s police chief, Scott Ruszkowski, who is white.

Buttigieg and Ruszkowski were repeatedly castigated and shouted down by attendees, who accused them of being disconnected to systemic racial issues within the police force and community at large.

Video footage of citizens shouting at Buttigieg looped endlessly on cable news, along with a viral exchange between the mayor and protesters.

“You’re running for president and you want black people to vote for you? That’s not going to happen,” one woman said to Buttigieg at a protest on Friday.

“I’m not asking for your vote,” Buttigieg responded.

“You ain’t gonna get it either,” she fired back.

Prominent critics in South Bend have accused Buttigieg of turning a blind eye to allegations of racism within the police department and of failing to promote people of color.

Shortly after being elected mayor in 2012, Buttigieg demoted the city’s first-ever African American police chief for secretly recording one of his white officers.

There are allegations that some white officers on the South Bend police force used racist language in the recordings.

South Bend’s City Council has subpoenaed Buttigieg to obtain the recordings, but the matter has been tied up in the courts for years now and the tapes have not been made public.

Buttigieg has acknowledged he mishandled that situation and on Monday took responsibility for the latest controversy.

“The many well-intentioned steps we have taken, locally and across the country, have not succeeded,” he said in a statement. “We have not done enough. I will be working with my team and community to build on what we have done together over the past few years. It is clear we need to implement bolder and more aggressive actions moving forward.”

Buttigieg’s aides and allies say he is confronting the matter head on.

The South Bend mayor has canceled campaign events, a string of fundraisers in California, media interviews and a planned speech at a Democratic National Committee event so that he could be on the ground in Indiana to deal with the shooting.

Buttigieg held a press conference on the shooting, during which he became emotional. He conducted the town hall event with Ruszkowski and met with members of Logan’s family at a vigil as well. His campaign says he has had several meetings and dozens of phone calls with community leaders, religious leaders, activists and elected officials in South Bend.

Buttigieg has also committed to sending a letter on the incident to the Department of Justice, and in recent days he pledged to update police department protocols and ensure there is more recruitment from communities of color, among other initiatives.

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Still, Buttigieg’s critics say it’s too little too late.

“He’s failed miserably,” said Derek Dieter, a former Democratic city councilman and a veteran of the South Bend Police Department. “He’s egotistical and narcissistic and he should resign. He’s clearly only worried about his presidential campaign.”

Buttigieg’s meteoric rise from South Bend mayor to legitimate presidential contender has been one of the cycle’s biggest surprises.   

On the campaign trail, Buttigieg often refers to his experience as the leader of a diverse industrial Midwest town as evidence of why he’s best equipped to reach out to the swing voters who backed President TrumpDonald John TrumpZuckerberg launches public defense of Facebook as attacks mount Trump leaning toward keeping a couple hundred troops in eastern Syria: report Warren says making Israel aid conditional on settlement building is 'on the table' MORE in 2016.

In speeches, Buttigieg has talked about how as mayor he has to deal with matters that Washington lawmakers are disconnected from, from faulty sewer pipes to officer-involved shootings.

Buttigieg has been praised for his unflappable nature and measured presence on the campaign trail, but the shooting and protests have clearly impacted him, and the video footage coming out of South Bend has been damaging to his otherwise charmed campaign.

"Mayor Pete is done," one Democratic strategist said emphatically. "His handling of this has finished him. Terrible response." 

On Sunday, Buttigieg said he’s “sick of these things being talked about in political terms,” but the controversy underscores his greatest challenge: attracting support from black voters, a key voting bloc in a Democratic primary.

"The black vote is crucial in the 2020 election,” said another Democratic strategist. “It's the only way the nominee wins the election, and his response will echo among black voters for months and months to come. This incident shows you can be smart and well-versed on issues, but if you're out of touch with your own community it speaks volumes.”

Buttigieg addressed black people across the nation directly in remarks to reporters on Sunday.

“What I hope African Americans watching this see is that our city is facing this, we're not running away from it,” he said. “This isn't theoretical for us. This isn't something being debated in Washington, this is our problem, as it is a problem in so many places. And we are on the front lines of it. And we're doing everything we know how and figuring out things we've never thought of before to manage it. This problem has to get solved in my lifetime.”