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.
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.
10 more candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination gathered at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts for Thurday’s debate.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Vice President Joe Biden: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Sen. Kamala Harris of California; Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York; former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, from left, were among the 10 Democratic hopefuls taking the stage for the second night of the Democratic primary debate.(Byrnn Anderson / Associated Press)
Former vice president Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont greet the audience before Thursday’s debate. The two are currently leading in most Democratic primary polls.(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)
California Sen. Kamala Harris, left, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speak at Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate in Miami.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, left, and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California on the second night of the first 2020 Democratic primary debate.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris, from left, had center stage at Thursday’s Democratic primary debate in Miami.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and Eric Swalwell, from left, before the second night of the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign.(Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images)
Kamala Harris singles out Joe Biden, left, during an answer Thursday night. At center is Bernie Sanders.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
From left, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand respond to the moderators on the second night of the Democrats’ first primary debate for 2020.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
From left, presidential hopefuls author and writer Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and entrepreneur Andrew Yang participate in the second Democratic primary debate.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Former Vice President Joe Biden greets supporters after the second Democratic primary debate.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, left, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California shake hands after the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, shakes hands with former Vice President Joe Biden at the end of the Democratic primary debate.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Lacey Hunt, a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, takes a photo of the television while watching the second Democratic presidential debate at a party in Atlanta on June 27, 2019.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
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.