Mayor Pete Buttigieg gave an important speech about race relations and law enforcement on Tuesday. The Democratic presidential contender didn’t do it in his beleaguered city of South Bend, Ind., though. He chose to give it in Chicago.
It is noteworthy that a mayor who is facing backlash for mishandling a controversial shooting of a black man by a white police officer would unveil his national platform on police reform in a much bigger city with similar problems. It shows that the issue isn’t just his. It’s universal.
There are few places where tensions between African-Americans and the police have been illuminated more than in Chicago, where the racial shooting death of Laquan McDonald, the cover-up and subsequent murder conviction of former police Officer Jason Van Dyke exposed how deeply the distrust on both sides is rooted.
Chicago is bruised and battle-worn. Buttigieg was certain to face no backlash here.
But perhaps the candidate’s most calculated political move was to make a speech apologizing for his failures and promising to do better at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition — the house of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
If there’s one thing every Democrat knows, it is that the road to the White House is paved with the votes of African-Americans. Because of Jackson, that path long has included a detour through Chicago.
PUSH would offer Buttigieg a safe space to talk about his failure to diversify his city’s police department and address other economic and social disparities without judgment. And he could do it while in the embrace of a civil rights icon whose impressive presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 endeared him to many African Americans.
Buttigieg was among seven Democratic presidential contenders who made their way to the South Side of Chicago over the past five days to speak at PUSH’s annual convention.
They came to Chicago, not so much to court the African American voters in solidly blue Illinois. It was for the chance to appear on a national stage with Jackson and other black leaders who could bolster their credibility as the candidate best suited to bridge the racial gap that has burgeoned under Donald Trump.
All of the candidates were invited, but neither of the two black candidates — Sens. Cory Booker nor Kamala Harris — showed up. The candidates who did had much at stake.
Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden are on the defensive for prior actions that negatively affected African-Americans. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and author Marianne Williamson have gained little or no traction with black voters.
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Fresh off a stunning attack by Harris during the presidential debate over his past position on busing, Biden was the first to speak on Friday. After appearing on stage with Jackson, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and TV judge Greg Mathis, Biden attempted to set his civil rights record straight in a speech carried live on C-SPAN.
“I never, never, never, ever opposed voluntary busing,” Biden said, adding that he supported federal legislation to “address root causes of segregation in our schools.” He insisted that he was in favor of “using federal authority to overcome state-initiated segregation” long before it was popular.
Biden isn’t the first Democratic front-runner to try to seal the deal in Chicago. Shortly before securing the 2016 Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton used the PUSH platform to publicly acknowledge her mistakes and pledge to “earn” voters’ trust. She also made the point that gun violence in Chicago and across the nation was a “civil rights issue.”
With a slate full of Democratic contenders seeking to harness the African American vote to unseat Trump in 2020, Jackson has positioned himself once again as a political power broker. It was obvious in his appearance with Buttigieg at a news conference shortly before the mayor spoke on the final day of the conference.
At the podium, Jackson talked about issues such as voting rights and systemic housing segregation — issues he was championing decades before 37-year-old Buttigieg was born. The mayor stood next to him, soaking in every word like an apprentice eager to learn the ropes.
When Buttigieg had a chance to speak, he sounded a lot like Jackson. To his credit, though, he did not make excuses for his mistakes. He acknowledged that he had not personally done enough.
“All of the different issues affecting black Americans are connected. When a community is … wrestling as ours is with questions of relations between communities of color and the police department, you can’t separate that from questions of economic empowerment, access to health care, education, housing and the fact that all of these play into the ability of people to live out their lives in safety and prosperity,” he said.
“One thing I really need to continue conveying to our police officers is that it is not anti-police to be pro-racial justice,” he said. “On the contrary, we absolutely can and absolutely must be both. You could argue that no one has a greater role to play when it comes to community trust in policing than the police themselves.”
It sounds as though Buttigieg really gets it. Or maybe he was merely echoing Jackson. Maybe that’s what all of the candidates who appear at Rainbow/PUSH do.
In a presidential campaign, though, it will be hard to hide the truth. We will know for sure once they leave the safe confines of Chicago and return to the campaign trail or back to their political lives.
What they say and do there will be much more reliable than what is said while peeking out from beneath Jackson’s wings.