Pete Buttigieg Tries to Rekindle a “Sense of Hope” at Denver Fundraiser

Former South Bend mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg addresses a crowd of supporters in Denver.
Former South Bend mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg addresses a crowd of supporters in Denver. Evan Semón
There were distinct echoes of past Democratic presidential campaigns in Pete Buttigieg’s closing message to a crowd of supporters in Denver on Wednesday, January 8.

“I want to leave you with the idea of hope,” Buttigieg told a crowd of 2,500 at the Fillmore Auditorium, after a thirty-minute stump speech that touched on everything from health care and gun control to the Electoral College and gerrymandering. “I know hope went out of style for a bit in our political vocabulary, because we know how bleak the moment has become. But I am propelled into this by the spirit of hope.

“Because running for office is an act of hope, and so is volunteering and so is voting,” Buttigieg added as the crowd cheered. “So are you ready to spread that sense of hope to everybody you know?”

The $25-a-ticket fundraiser was Buttigieg’s first campaign stop in Colorado, which will hold its presidential primary along with thirteen other states on Super Tuesday, March 3. Colorado, he told the crowd, “will be a decisive state for the future of this race.”

In national polling, Buttigieg remains a distant fourth in what is still a somewhat crowded Democratic primary field — though he’s faring better in early-voting states like Iowa, where the latest polling shows him in a statistical dead heat with former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

In his speech, Buttigieg struck a more moderate tone than either Sanders or Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, two progressive stalwarts who made campaign stops in the Denver area last year. He touted his health- care plan, a public-option-style program dubbed “Medicare for All Who Want It.” He spoke of his eagerness to bring “future former Republicans” into the fold, and faulted his fellow Democrats for not paying enough attention to the federal budget deficit.

“It has not been fashionable in my party to talk about the deficit or the debt, which is too bad,” Buttigieg said. “I’m thinking about future generations that might have to be stuck with the bill for all this. So let’s do something about the debt.”

From his moderate messaging and emphasis on “hope” to his shirtsleeves-and-tie appearance and carefully polished charisma, it's easy to see which towering recent figure in Democratic politics Buttigieg is trying to evoke. But as Democrats look to prevail in 2020 by winning back supporters of former president Barack Obama who deserted the party in the 2016 election, some aren't sure whether the small-town mayor with the Ivy League education is the best one to do it.

Buttigieg has consistently failed to catch on with voters of color since announcing his run for president last April, and has faced intense criticism from leaders of South Bend's black community for his handling of issues there during his time as mayor, including his decision to demote the city's first black police chief and a controversial redevelopment plan that saw hundreds of abandoned houses torn down in majority non-white neighborhoods. One November poll showed Buttigieg with less than 1 percent support from black voters in the crucial early-voting state of South Carolina.

Kim Hornak, a Democratic voter who attended the Fillmore event but is still undecided, says she’s aligned with Buttigieg’s moderate views but isn’t sure about his electability. “I’m all about beating Trump, and I’m still trying to decipher who is going to be the best Democratic candidate to beat Trump,” she says. “I’m concerned that he doesn’t carry the black and Latino vote.”

But Hornak gushes about Buttigieg's "perfect personality" — "if not president, vice president," she says — and for many of the thousands of supporters, the "spirit of hope" that the former mayor called for was exactly the message they were looking for.

"I think that was a great ending," says Jill Boice, a Buttigieg supporter. "It's not just about him running. You know, he needs help, and he wants people to feel good about it. I like him as a candidate a lot."
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff