A town hall featuring Mayor Pete Buttigieg broke into near chaos Sunday afternoon as the Democratic presidential candidate tried to respond to community concerns over a white police officer killing a black man in the city.
Buttigieg was solemn, somber and circumspect as he tried to explain the procedures of how officials will review the shooting, while saying that he didn’t want to prejudice the investigation. He also said he would ask the Justice Department to review the case and for an independent prosecutor to decide whether to prosecute.
“We’ve taken a lot of steps, but they clearly haven’t been enough,” said Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind.
The largely black audience of hundreds was having none of it. “We don’t trust you!” a woman hollered at the mayor.
The tragedy unfolded in Buttigieg’s city on June 16, and it would be difficult to imagine a domestic crisis more nightmarish for a mayor and a presidential candidate who has enjoyed a largely carefree rise to the top tier of Democratic contestants.
Buttigieg’s lack of popularity among black voters nationally — a crucial demographic for winning the Democratic primary and then the presidency – was already one of his biggest weaknesses in a contest dominated by racial justice issues like never before. Buttigieg had recently been laying the groundwork to win over some of those skeptical voters in states such as South Carolina.
But now the shooting has highlighted the racial tension right on Buttigieg’s home turf, revealing for a national audience the pain and anger that has long festered among South Bend’s black residents.
“I’m not surprised,” said Mario Sims, 67, the pastor of the nondenominational Dolos Chapel, who is black.
“This was a trail of gasoline that was waiting to be ignited, and last week it ignited,” Sims said of the hometown strife now surrounding Buttigieg.
Until now, Buttigieg had enjoyed a charmed and improbable role in the presidential primary as the mayor of a Rust Belt city whose population barely tops 100,000, a 37-year-old in a field dominated by two 70-somethings.
He’d been lifted in the polls — and into television green rooms — by his gifts as a communicator and by his singular biography as an openly gay veteran who reads James Joyce and speaks several languages.
His mere existence as a liberal force in conservative Indiana suggested an alternative path for Democrats fighting to rebuild support in the nation’s heartland.
But at home, Buttigieg is a much more common figure in American politics: a white politician struggling to connect with his black constituents, whose lives are plagued by grinding poverty and violence that their wunderkind mayor has been unable to repair after seven years in office.
And this has always been his weakness. He just doesn't get it, he doesn't understand the party and keeps telling Democrats that we're the ones who have to change to accommodate Republicans. But he blew it. If black residents of South Bend think Buttigieg is a failure, and I gotta agree with them here, then he needs to drop out of the race.
Pete's nowhere near ready yet.