I met with Pete Buttigieg on his McCain-inspired straight talk express bus tour across New Hampshire this weekend, and we had some straight talk alright. Some of what he told me might eventually be the death knell to his very successful campaign. I’m going to give it you reverse pyramid style because you guys are probably in a rush to your Peloton class with that instructor you have a crush on and won’t have time to skim through the end of this.
Buttigieg’s support among black voters, necessary for a Democratic candidate to get the nomination, is flat-lining. There’s no path to the convention in Milwaukee next year for Buttigieg without the vote of older black voters. Conversely, there is an old racist trope rearing its ugly head again. If the Democrats lose, blame the blacks: they are homophobic. The Old Grey Lady had a field day with this last week. But Buttigieg’s problems with the black vote can be traced back to his first year as mayor of South Bend, when he demanded the resignation of the city’s first black police chief, Darryl Boykins. And black voters know that. Boykins was under investigation for wiretapping police officers, which allegedly caught them using racist language.
In footage easily found on YouTube from an emergency town hall hastily put together this summer after black South Bend residents started flipping tables over the murder of Eric Logan by a SBPD cop, Buttigieg can be heard saying to a black woman who just told him she won’t vote for him: “I’m not asking for your vote.” No Pete, you are. Actually you are begging for it. And it’s not going well.
“Did you fire Darryl Boykins because of the wiretapping?” I asked Buttigieg on his bus as it careened through New Hampshire.
“Yeah,” Buttigieg said, “mainly because of the fact that I found out from others about the criminal investigation.”
“But wasn’t the wiretapping started before he became police chief?” I asked.
“Correct, yeah,” he said.
“So why fire him?” I asked. “Because he was just following something that started way before him. He didn’t start the wiretapping.”
“Well, no. The investigation was into his behavior. So when he threatened the officers that were recorded,” Buttigieg explained, “that was one of the things that triggered, I think, the investigation into him.”
“I fired him because I learned from federal investigators, and not from him, that there was a criminal investigation going on into his practices.”
“And yet you didn’t really fire him, you just demoted him,” I noted. Boykins later sued the city for racial discrimination, winning a $50,000 settlement. “Was the FBI investigation over the wiretapping or over the threats?”
“Same thing,” he said, explaining that under the Wiretap Act, information obtained through an illegal wiretap cannot be used in certain ways.
“I live in New York City,” I told Buttigieg, “and when de Blasio was running for president, at the same time he refused to fire the cop who killed Eric Garner.” De Blasio’s refusal to fire Daniel Pantaleo dogged his campaign. “The question I asked de Blasio was: ‘Why don’t you just fire him?’ So why couldn’t you just fire those cops? As a mayor, do you have authority to fire those cops?”
“No,” Buttigieg replied. “That’s the difference. In Indiana, by statute, the hiring and firing is left to a Board of Safety. Now what is true is that I appoint the members of that board. And by the way, it’s a very diverse staff, African-American majority board, that does its meetings in public.”
“Would you be for the Justice Department to step in and oversee the South Bend PD?” I later asked, pointing out his Douglass Plan calls for more federal oversight of police.
“No,” Buttigieg replied.
I noted that the officer who killed Eric Logan had been accused of making racist comments.
“That allegation was ruled unjustified under Chief Boykins,” Buttigieg said. “So the idea that you would summon somebody else to take over a department based on an allegation that had been ruled false 10 years ago, is tenuous.”
“I will say that one of the things that doesn’t get talked about much is when those tapes came up and we weren’t sure what to do with them because they were radioactive, I sent them to the civil rights division in the department of justice to see if there was any way for them to legally be examined to see if there was a civil rights problem,” Buttigieg told me, “and they sent them back.”
“Right now you are confident that you don’t have a racism problem in South Bend PD?” I asked
“If I ever get credible evidence of racism on the part of a police officer in South Bend, that ought to be their last day on the department,” he said.
“But you said earlier you can’t fire cops?” I pointed out.
“Right. So the Board of Safety understands that there is not going to be tolerance —”
“You have that much sway over the Board of Safety?” I interjected.
“Well I appoint them. And I’m pretty sure that a majority black Board of Safety is not going to accept racism.”
So why didn’t the Board of Safety fire the officers who were accused of making racist comments on the tapes Boykins recorded?
“One thing you definitely can’t do is you illegally wiretap somebody, is discipline them at their workplace based on illegally obtained evidence,” Buttigieg said. “Remember, these folks sued the city and got a massive settlement over the violation of their rights just from the wiretap stuff alone. So yeah, if the question you’re asking is why somebody wasn’t removed based on potentially illegally obtained information that may or may not have contained anything derogatory on them, then hopefully your question is answering itself.”
“Not really,” I replied. “Because the city attorneys were using those tapes to fight litigation against the city of South Bend. So you can’t have it both ways. You cannot say, well we’re not going to touch those tapes at all, and then have your own city attorneys ask, ‘What’s on those tapes? So we can fight litigation against South Bend.’”
“So, I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure there’s a difference between what you can do in an administrative proceeding and what you can do in a lawsuit over the existence of the recordings themselves,” Buttigieg replied.
I’m no lawyer either Pete but this exchange is devastating and would have you turning hostile witness at your own defense. According to court documents, on the wiretaps white officers can be heard talking about how Bob Urbanski, Buttigieg’s mayoral campaign chairman, pushed Buttigieg to fire the black chief. The new chief, Scott Ruszkowski, is white and half of the black police officers on the force who were there before Buttigieg took office are now gone. In a city that is 26% black, SBPD is now 6% black.
South Bend Police Sergeant Ryan O’Neill, who in June, after turning his dash camera off, killed black South Bend resident Eric Logan, was allegedly heard by other black cops, according to court documents, saying upon seeing a mixed couple waking down the street that it made him want to throw up.
Buttigieg was asked if Boykins, fired because of a FBI investigation, was actually even under FBI investigation in the first place. Who told Buttigieg that Boykins was under investigation? Was it the US Attorney’s office? Buttigieg said that his staff was given the strong impression that in the event Boykins wasn’t removed there would be an indictment, and that he doesn’t remember who on his legal team told him that.
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
I also had a chance to ask Buttigieg about his recent favorable comments about Anthony Kennedy. It reminds me of how Barack Obama attempted to triangulate when he praised Ronald Reagan. The same repulsive opportunism. Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan advocates the restoration of the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the 2013 decision Kennedy joined gutted. “Aren’t you shooting yourself in the foot?” I asked him.
He answered that Kennedy is not the type of nominee he would necessary pick, that he was trying to point to someone who could gather bipartisan support and unite at a time when the court is divided along party lines – calling it a situation we cannot sustain as a country.
Huh? For those of you not familiar with McKinsey double speak, this is exhibit A.
I told him that he keeps on saying on the stump that candidates should not promise things they won’t be able to deliver, an obvious dig at Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But when Buttigieg proposes in his Douglass Plan to cut mass incarceration in half and reintegrate disenfranchised minority voters who were purged, something that as a president he cannot do because of states rights, he is stepping on the same mines.
Buttigieg told me that it is true that most prisoners are in state prisons and state legislatures and secretaries of state control access to the polls, but he can as president build a momentum towards change in these areas and instill hope so that we can restore our democratic system. The message of hope is what gets the most applause when he gives speeches. It’s not only bootlicking Obama, it amounts to the laziest Bill Clinton plagiarism of a campaign.
You know who eats it up though? The campaign embeds.
When I taught a media class at a New York University last year anytime we mentioned the word embedded the name Jurgen Habermas popped up. The embed is to journalism what Bill Maher is to political science and the public sphere: nothing. To the miserable bunch of mostly white reporters with the Buttigieg campaign in New Hampshire this weekend, Habermas is probably a golf club bag brand. They follow the candidate around like slime follows slug. In a newsroom social order, campaign embeds are at the bottom. They gossip and like my students in the lecture front rows, and note down everything. They were all there: CNN, AP, FOX, ABC, NBC, CBS. The embeds do everything. A one man or woman orchestra they carry heavy tri-pads, mini HD cameras, MacBook Airs and probably STDs. This is a pretty incestuous bunch. They laugh at the same lame ass jokes, eat the same doughnuts, sleep at the same pubic hair riddled Holiday Inns, tape the same boring stump speech six times a day hoping for their candidate to stumble and have the news editor back in Manhattan finally notice their existence, if only for an hour. They are what Habermas hated the most: PR. But for whom? Corporate media? Buttigieg? Both?
In the middle of this cour des miracles sashays Lis Smith, modeling her wraparound sunglasses down the bus’s narrow hallway. On Saturday morning the campaign staff was bitching about a piece that went up the night before on the New York Times about how the other candidates rue Buttigieg. “It was so petty,” Smith lashed out, under the silent gaze of press secretary Chris Meagher, who resembles the guy in the back of the high school class taking notes on his Harry Potter revenge pad. By this time in the campaign, the embeds are so caked in, they might as well be signed up as staff. Their need for access impedes them from asking anything subversive. By the time one of them asked Buttigieg if people in Malta were happy he was running I had enough. Habermas was right, the public sphere is shrinking and all these sycophantic embeds should read Leo Strauss instead of this Anonymous cypher.
Needless to say I was not allowed by Lis Smith to re-enter the straight talk express after my interview. Smith dispatched her minions to tell me the bus was full after an unexpected manifestation of reporters in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire had taken my promised seat. The double speak Orwellian bus I was now following behind from a short bus, like I had suddenly contracted a disease, soon arrived at the next leg, and I checked: there were no extra reporters.
Last week, Smith answered Zerlina Maxwell’s tweet “I am offended that some folks in the media are covering Mayor Pete like he can win when he’s at zero with the base of the Democratic Party. BLACK PEOPLE. Your bias is showing so please be aware and tuck it in,” with “I would agree that bias is showing, but it ain’t from those folks.” As in “you people”? Ross Perot had to drop out of the presidential trail after he called a gathering a black people you people. Oy vey.
It took the Buttigieg campaign 30 minutes after I was kicked off the propaganda Buttigieg 2020 bus to have Sean Savett, whom I had never heard from or talked to before, email me, asking me to call him ASAP to discuss SBPD. His title? Rapid Response Communications Director for the campaign. The clean up crew. I had tripped the war room’s circuit breaker. I didn’t answer. Yesterday I got another beseeching email from Sean. Now we are panicking people. He’ll be ready in four years, an AP embed later told me. America does not get it. But the people he needs most do and they vote in Democratic primaries. En masse. Revenge is a dish best served cold.
All the best,
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.