Pete Buttigieg, presidential candidate and former mayor (as of just over a week ago) of South Bend, Indiana, made his first public splash in Denver at a fundraiser at the Fillmore last night, January 8. But hours before taking the stage before the cheering throng, Buttigieg sat down with Jeff Fard, aka Brother Jeff, for a lively conversation that speaks to the candidate's understanding that he must improve his standing with black voters if he is to have any chance of becoming the Democratic Party's choice to take on President Donald Trump in November.
The sit-down illustrated how much of a challenge it will be for Buttigieg to accomplish this goal. He didn't make any major gaffes, even reeling off what the letters NAACP stand for — a question that caused Denver mayoral candidate Jamie Giellis to stumble during a sit-down with Fard associate Shay J last May — before noting that he is a lifetime subscribing member of the organization. But the visual of Buttigieg sitting in front of a mural of black icons, looking like the nerdiest kid on the student council at Omaha's Millard West High School, spoke volumes — especially when he tried bobbing his head during Fard's hip-hop intro to his daily show broadcast from Brother Jeff's Cultural Center in Five Points.
Although, to be fair, Buttigieg did avoid slipping into the white man's overbite.
At the outset, Buttigieg noted that he'd last been in Denver in 2004, when he was campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry: "It was my first job. I was in Arizona. They wrapped up the operation and sent me to Denver for about a minute." He added that he looked forward to connecting with people in states such as Colorado, which "are among the first to vote," in order to "earn more votes and more support."
Shortly thereafter, Fard asked Buttigieg to read what he calls his "trigger alert," which declares: "This is a show that triggers people, because you have entered a free-think zone. if you're not willing to be exposed to other points of view, tune out now and don't read the comments. You have been warned."
The next warning was for Buttigieg: Fard told him that he'd be peppering him with questions over the next thirty minutes or so, likening the effect to "drinking out of a fire hose." And so it was.
Here's the video:
Fard began by prompting Buttigieg to talk about his background while noting that "people have this impression that you're, like, a privileged white guy."
"I think any white guy is privileged," Buttigieg replied with his usual smooth, easy assurance. "The patterns of racial and gender privilege that exist in this county...I'm not blind to that, and I think it's very important to acknowledge."
"You're straight?" Fard quipped moments later.
"Actually, I'm not," Buttigieg answered, to laughter from Fard and an off-camera group that would be chatting with the ex-mayor off-camera after the session was over.
From there, Buttigieg acknowledged, "There's more to America than what politicians talk about as the so-called middle class," pointing out that there are "140 million Americans who are either officially in poverty or low wealth — and it's time to talk about poverty more, too."
Fard followed this with a question about reparations. Buttigieg said he supports HR 40, a U.S. House of Representatives bill that calls for the creation of a commission to study and develop such proposals, but insisted that "we shouldn't wait for that." He touted immediate cash infusions for agencies that support the black community, the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to overcome under-representation in fields such as health care, and his Douglass Plan, named after American hero Frederick Douglass, which focuses on what's dubbed "a comprehensive investment in the empowerment of Black America."
Along the way, Buttigieg touched upon gentrification, which he called a problem across the country, though not yet in South Bend, where he said homes could still be purchased in some neighborhoods for $30,000 — a revelation that caused Fard to offer a stunned "What?" He also took on issues related to a Fard inquiry about urban camping bans, advocating for permanent supported housing for homeless individuals with addiction issues and the elimination of a federal policy that excludes parolees from getting a spot in Section 8 housing.
Next, Fard pushed Buttigieg on his appearances at a pair of contentious South Bend rallies — one after the officer-involved shooting of a man named Eric Logan, the other at a protest where he told a black woman, "I'm not asking for your vote." About the former, Buttigieg said that he realized "part of my job was not to pretend that we could fix everything overnight, not to sweep anything under the rug, but to absorb a lot of pain. When somebody's coming at you and they're furious, and they're furious for reasons you can understand, you can go into a defensive mode...but I was trying to absorb that pain." As mayor, he contended, "You are responsible for anything that anybody who works for the city does. ... We can't say our work is done when there's that kind of fear."
As for "I'm not asking for your vote," Buttigieg said that line was misinterpreted: He only meant that he was at the rally as mayor, not as a presidential candidate.
Following this theme, Fard cited "Mayor Pete's Invisible Black Police," a new article from The Root that castigates him for dumping South Bend's black police chief and failing to meet with black officers in the department. Buttigieg responded by explaining that the chief was under investigation by the FBI, something he had to learn about secondhand, and added that while he knew many black officers on the force, he hadn't been invited to any organized conclave. Still, he conceded that it was difficult to recruit African-Americans to wear a badge, "especially after Ferguson," and he owned "up to the fact that we've got to do better. We've got to do better in my city, and we've got to do better as a country."
After a discussion of the current situation in the Middle East, Fard did a quick pivot, raising the topic of cannabis by miming a hit off a joint and passing it to Buttigieg — which he pretended to pass to someone off -camera, to loud guffaws. But then Buttigieg got serious: "I believe we've got to legalize. I believe as we do, as this new industry emerges, the benefits should go to those who have been harmed by the foolish policies and the racially disparate impacts of the failed War on Drugs. We know this is creating more problems than it was created to solve. ... We've got to think about expungements, looking backward in cases where incarceration did so much harm. ... We've got to deal with the racial inequities of the War on Drugs."
"What is your message to black women?" Fard asked.
Buttigieg acknowledged his obligation as "a new white guy on the scene" to understand that "black women have been the backbone of the Democratic Party in so many ways." However, he continued, "I meet more and more women who not only feel kicked around by the Republican Party, but taken for granted by my party. The Democratic Party comes around, shows up in churches every two years, every four years, expecting help." He pledged to actually provide such assistance by way of his Douglass Plan and efforts to "act on wages and unions, because that will disproportionately benefit black women."
And speaking of black women, Fard then asked, "Cardi B or Nicki Minaj?" Buttigieg picked Cardi B, "because any time she talks about something, she has something interesting to say." He was slower off the draw when the choice was between New Edition or the Temptations, despite Fard encouraging him to pick New Edition, and he declined to say which other candidate on debate stages he'd take with him to a party. In Buttigieg's words, "It would be a mistake to name-check any of them...but we're talking about good people, any one of whom would be light-years better than the person in the White House now."
More interesting was Buttigieg's final statement, when he made his pitch to people of color in Fard's audience even more explicit: "I know that when I'm reaching out in particular to black and brown folks, I'm reaching out to people who have been let down and left out by politicians in both parties time and time again. I'm mindful of that, and it's one of the reasons why this engagement has to be two-way, and I'm committed to doing as much listening as speaking, as much reaching out as calling in. And even for those folks who don't think they can support me, either because they're looking for a different life experience or background coming into the White House, I promise I will be there to support you. I know the only way to prove it is to go out and do it."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.