In presidential politics, it’s often described as that “phone call at 3 in the morning” that signals a crisis.
For South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, he received that call in the midst of what has been seen as a credible Democratic presidential campaign and has spent the last week in the utterly conspicuous glare of local and national media attention. The tragic shooting death of 54-year-old black man Eric Logan apparently as he wielded a knife by police Sgt. Ryan O’Neill has thrust Buttigieg in a crisis bookended by the racial conflicts of our time in Charlottesville and Ferguson.
It has become an era of racial-generated politics, with the contrasting forces — be they white and black, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative — moving beyond Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s clarion credo that what really matters is the “content of your character” trumping the “color of your skin.”
For mayor and candidate Buttigieg, it’s become the proverbial Catch 22. No matter what he would do or say after he was alerted on June 16 of the police action shooting, the mayor would find critics in every corner.
From a crisis communications standpoint, Buttigieg did what he had to do:
1. In a crisis, the first step is recognition, and on June 16, Buttigieg immediately realized the volatility of the situation, cancelled a series of campaign events and headed back to South Bend.
2. He addressed this crisis in a timely fashion. He met with the victim’s family, attended a police swearing-in ceremony at the South Bend Board of Works, acknowledging that the forthcoming criticism was “justified.”
3. He fostered a wide-ranging community conversation that was utterly transparent, with two public forums and a Friday night protest rally where he was directly confronted by angry constituents in the glare of klieg lamps and "breaking news."
4. He accepted President Harry Truman’s famed dictate that the “buck stops here.” He took responsibility for a single police officer’s action, even with O’Reilly’s body cam unactivated to record what really happened.
“He did everything right in terms of rapid response,” said Cameron Carter, whose public affairs agency Content By Carter handles crisis communications. “It was a very public and transparent response. He called for an objective third party to examine the incident. In terms as a crisis communications, I couldn’t have advised any better than what he did.”
After his Sunday town hall that was nationally televised, Buttigieg became visibly emotional when reporters questioned the wisdom of holding the forum that became an animated shouting match by some of his constituents. “I just think it’s my job,” Buttigieg said. “I don’t know if it’s smart or not. I don’t know if it’s strategic or not. But it’s my city.”
Carter, a former staffer to Sen. Richard Lugar who worked on Dan Quayle’s brief 2000 presidential campaign, noted that no matter which way the mayor responded, there would be critics. Buttigieg was described at the town halls as a dispassionate “technocrat” by pundits.
David Axelrod, a key adviser to President Obama and a friend of Buttigieg, told the New York Times, “In politics, as in life, everyone’s strength is also their weakness. Pete’s appeal is that he is cool, calm and thoughtful, a stark contrast to the churn of an endlessly divisive president. But the flip side is that, earnest as he is, he’s not overly emotive, which didn’t serve him well here.”
On Monday, he sent an email to his campaign supporters, saying, "I held a community-wide town hall to discuss race and policing in our city, to make sure all residents could be heard. It was a tough conversation. Hearts are broken. My heart is broken. It was a painful but needed conversation."
He added, “I’m running for president as a mayor of an American city because the toughest issues we face locally are also important national issues."
By Wednesday, Buttigieg was in Miami preparing for Thursday’s second Democratic presidential debate. It was here where the mayor began outlining the contours of how his crisis would play out nationally in the context of a presidential race. Asked by MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle if it was wise for him to be back in campaign mode, Buttigieg responded, “We have to be able to do many things at once. This is a moment my community is in anguish. This is not just a policy question, this is a moral question.”
Asked about a lack of empathy, he said, “Some times you feel such powerful emotion, the only thing you can do is try and sit still, sit tight and try to absorb it.”
“I don’t know if that’s good politics,” Buttigieg said.
Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor, White House chief of staff and congressman, famously said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
Mayor Buttigieg had a crisis, he dealt with it as his city and nation watched in real time. Where it leads him (and us) is to be determined.