Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a CNN commentator, was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has been the most surprising story of the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign.
Cool, calm and preternaturally collected, Buttigieg has stood apart in this raw and frenzied era of Donald Trump for his obvious intellect and reasoned demeanor. His ability to generate more light than heat seemed a welcome antidote to the perpetual churn of a divisive president.
A relative unknown six months ago, the 37-year-old gay Afghanistan War veteran and Rhodes scholar improbably has ridden a blitz of compelling TV performances to the top polling tier among a legion of Democratic candidates. Along the way, he has offered the story of his Rust Belt city’s revival as a symbol for what is possible in this age of rapid and disruptive economic change.
But in politics, as in life, a person’s strength also can be a weakness, a principle on display again this past week as Buttigieg left the campaign trail to confront the angry aftermath of a police-involved shooting in his hometown. The maelstrom began in the early morning hours June 16 when a police officer on patrol was called to the scene of a man who, police say, was breaking into automobiles near downtown South Bend.
According to the official account, when Sgt. Ryan O’Neill arrived, he discovered Eric J. Logan, 54, reaching into a car. Logan told O’Neill that the car was his, but the officer saw a purse under his clothing. When the officer approached, he says Logan produced a knife and advanced on him in a threatening way. After several warnings, O’Neill fired a fatal shot.
In the midst of roiling national debate about of the use of excessive force by police against people of color, any such shooting would raise a red flag. But there were two elements of this story that further inflamed the community.
The first was that the police say there apparently is no video of the confrontation despite the fact that the officer was wearing a required body camera and his patrol car was also equipped to record.
The second was that, rather than radioing for medical help, police removed the gravely wounded Logan from the scene and drove him to the nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Whether or not there is ever a way to resolve fully the questions surrounding the shooting, it exposed in South Bend bitter fault lines we have seen in communities across the country over race, policing and a criminal justice system with a long history of bias. It also has put the city’s mayor on trial at a critical juncture in his bid for national leadership.
The controversy came to a head Sunday at a raucous town hall at which Buttigieg and his police chief answered questions from the community.
Why wasn’t the officer’s bodycam activated?
Why has the number of black police officers diminished during Buttigieg’s administration despite promises of greater diversity? It’s a question made more significant by the fact that, in one of his first acts, Buttigieg replaced a black police chief over the illegal taping of officers he suspected of racist attitudes.
A grim Buttigieg opened the meeting by promising full transparency – within the limits of the law – in the O’Neill probe. He endorsed the demand for a special prosecutor, took responsibility for the failure of past measures to increase minority representation on the police force and promised new steps to ensure that police interactions with citizens are recorded.
To his credit, the mayor showed up, promised specific actions and responded to a litany of shouted, angry citizen complaints. He also was shown facing the kind of real-life crisis and accountability to which chief executives are subject and legislators generally are not.
Yet what he did not do was emote. There was no Clintonian “I feel your pain” moment or Obama-esque discussion of the larger legacy of racial injustice that has laid open a gulf of mistrust.
Those who know him – and I do – could see the anguish etched in his furrowed brow. But his answers were delivered in a factual, almost clinical, manner, more in keeping with his prior life as an analyst for McKinsey & Co. than the ministerial role called for by an episode in which a life was lost.
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For Buttigieg, the episode underscored what may be his greatest political obstacle for the nomination of a party in which African-Americans represent a quarter of the vote. It is almost impossible to win the nomination without substantial black support. This episode was a blow, but it also highlighted what may be a greater barrier.
Buttigieg’s calm and nuanced ability to think through complex and weighty issues, impressive as they are, are only half the equation of presidential leadership.
The capacity to meet moments such as this and connect with people on a gut level is another.
Buttigieg has demonstrated the intellectual depth and agility the job requires. Can he throw off the tight emotional restraints that seem to bind him?
Ultimately, this more than any other factor may define how far he can go.