Politics

2020 candidates use South Bend police shooting to confront Buttigieg

2020 Democratic presidential candidates use the South Bend police shooting to tell Mayor Pete Buttigieg how to run his own city.

On politics’ biggest stage Thursday night, Pete Buttigieg looked confident and crisp on national television as he answered Democratic debate questions about healthcare, student debt, climate change and international relations with China.

What a difference a few days makes. On Sunday afternoon, the 37-year-old mayor had been somber and browbeaten as African American residents in South Bend, Ind., gave him an earful at a chaotic town hall after a black man was shot and killed by a white police officer whose body camera was deactivated.

READ MORE: Black residents of South Bend unload on Mayor Pete Buttigieg »

When debate moderator Rachel Maddow finally asked why the South Bend Police Department had gotten less diverse under Buttigieg’s tenure, the mayor sounded more confident than he had at any moment when talking to his own residents earlier in the week: “Because I couldn’t get it done.”

Buttigieg said he was not allowed to take sides in the ongoing investigation into the shooting, but he acknowledged: “It’s a” — Buttigieg stumbled for a beat — “a mess.”

He said the problem won’t get fixed “until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism.”

But then former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper stepped in and talked about his own police reforms as Denver’s mayor. “The real question America should be asking is why, five years after Ferguson” — when protests and rioting broke out in that Missouri town after a black man was killed by a white policeman in 2014 — “every city doesn’t have this level of police accountability,” he said.

Buttigieg responded with one of the Democratic race’s rarest sightings: embracing a union’s denunciation of him. In this case, it was his city’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police — which had put out a statement upset that the mayor had implied that racism was at work in the Police Department.

“The FOP just denounced me for too much accountability,” Buttigieg said.

“If the camera wasn’t on, and that was the policy, you should fire the chief,” Bay Area congressman Eric Swalwell replied. “If you’re the mayor, you should fire the chief, if that’s the policy and someone died.”

Self-help author Marianne Williamson interrupted before Buttigieg could respond.

Buttigieg fixed an icy stare at Swalwell for nearly four seconds afterward as the debate continued.