Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s message for fellow Democratic hopefuls is a straightforward one: It’s not enough to just attack the president—no matter how loathsome you might find his words, actions and policies.
The vice president, on the other hand? It’s a little more complicated.
“It just felt like every few months, there would be some fresh embarrassment,” Buttigieg told The Daily Beast, in a conversation about his time as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, under then-Governor Mike Pence. “We had to deal with this kind of rotation of blunders that really made our entire state look silly.”
Other Democratic candidates have occasionally criticized Pence on the campaign trail—Sen. Kamala Harris called Pence’s past remarks about his refusal to dine alone with women without his wife present “outrageous”—although former Vice President Joe Biden was forced to backtrack after calling Pence “a decent guy” during a speech in Iowa.
But the frequency and intensity of Buttigieg’s critiques of the vice president speaks to a long shared history, both political and personal—as well as the young mayor’s deep personal disdain for perceived hypocrisy. Pence’s outspoken religiosity, the mayor said, is in direct and irreconcilable conflict with his position in the Trump administration, and with Buttigieg’s belief in the importance of “good faith.”
“That’s one of the biggest things that scripture counsels us to avoid,” Buttigieg, a churchgoing Episcopalian, told The Daily Beast. “It is galling… it’s just a real affront to see that happen.”
The tensions between Buttigieg and Pence run deep, as Buttigieg details in his memoir Shortest Way Home, in which the mayor describes his relationship with Pence as “long and complicated,” to put it mildly. Their dynamic, Buttigieg writes, was a precarious balancing act, working together on a regional economic development program while sparring over labor policy, refugee resettlement and Pence’s decision to withdraw Indiana’s application from a federal preschool grant.
“For the good of the city, I had to work with him on economic development, especially when his administration was doing something that I thought made sense,” Buttigieg told The Daily Beast. “At the same time, morally as well as for the good of the city, I had to fight him on things like the anti-gay policies. Not just as a gay person, but just as a mayor.”
When Pence, who during his time in Congress was known best as a warrior for social conservatism, signed the state’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” into law, he made any continued cooperation nearly impossible. The bill, which gave individuals and organizations the ability to discriminate against LGBT people based on their personal religious beliefs, sparked massive and immediate backlash around the country. That outrage was further inflamed when Pence appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos and refused to say whether he thought that businesses should be able to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Buttigieg, who is openly gay and has described his marriage to husband Chasten as bringing him closer to God, called the fallout from the bill “a disaster” for the state.
“It really made my life harder, as we were trying to demonstrate that Indiana was ready for the future,” Buttigieg said. “He seemed to be intent on sending us back into the past.”
A spokesperson for Pence did not return requests for comment on Buttigieg’s allegations of hypocrisy, although the vice president has dismissed criticism by other Democratic candidates as “being driven by the most extreme liberal elements in their party.”
The heightened community tensions sparked by the RFRA eventually made their way to Buttigieg’s front door, literally. When the young mayor came out of the closet in the middle of his reelection campaign, only months after the bill was signed, he was informed by a neighbor that his newspaper wasn’t being delivered anymore because the delivery man didn’t want to give a newspaper to “one of those”—meaning, a gay person.
“There are really consequences to this,” Buttigieg said of the bill and its accompanying anti-LGBT rhetoric. “Me not getting a newspaper is a nuisance, but there are still so many cases of real harm coming, especially to LGBT youth who don’t know if they belong. That’s everything from a gay kid who’s still being pushed into conversion therapy to a transgender student who just has to use the bathroom like everyone else getting the message from her own president that policymakers can’t tell the difference between her and some kind of predator.”
Pence’s inability, or refusal, to see those consequences, Buttigieg said, is “a good example of how the behavior of our leaders matters, not just in terms of policy but in terms of tone, and what they allow to happen and what they excuse.”
“In many ways, that moral or tonal dimension of leadership is as important or more as the actual policies that they put forward.”
The crisis ended in humiliation for Pence, who eventually signed a “fix” into law that effectively admitted that the legislation permitted discrimination against LGBT people, but it also set the stage for Pence to use his “culture warrior” reputation to legitimize the candidacy of Donald Trump, a thrice-married serial philanderer with poor understanding and worse credibility on issues like abortion and LGBT rights.
Buttigieg called the move “very clever” on Trump’s part—and “very cynical” on Pence’s, whose decision to join forces with the Trump campaign, he said, was “just really breathtaking in its hypocrisy.”
“If he’s serious about his understanding of his faith, I would think that it would preclude joining forces with somebody like this president,” Buttigieg said. “When you see somebody who engages in sanctimony and has as rigid a view of religion as he does, only be willing to throw it out the window completely and get on board with a project that is an affront not only to my understanding of Christianity, but also to his own, that’s the kind of hypocrisy for which scripture reserves some of its very harshest words—the idea of professing faith but taking worldly steps that fly in the face of that faith for the purposes of gaining power.”
Buttigieg cautioned that, while Pence’s religious hypocrisy gets him hot under the collar, “the less this election is about either him or the president, the better.” But some Hoosiers are more than happy to see him go toe-to-toe with the former governor.
“We have seen the vice president as incredibly problematic as a representative of our state,” said Josh Peters, a former president of the Indiana Stonewall Democrats, who is running for Marion County Treasurer in 2020. “We’re incredibly proud of the tone that Mayor Pete has set. Taking on the vice president’s alleged religiosity is a tactic that works even here in Indiana, because his positions run counter to our ‘Hoosier Nice,’ live-and-let-live attitude.”
People in Indiana, Peters said, need Buttigieg’s voice “to counteract the example that Mike Pence has set for what people think Hoosiers are.”
From a purely political perspective, Buttigieg’s broadsides against Pence have been a tactical victory. A dark-horse presidential candidate and self-described long-shot, the mayor’s polling (and fundraising) numbers skyrocketed after a breakout performance in a CNN town hall in early March, in which he blasted Pence as “the cheerleader of the porn-star presidency.”
According to Buttigieg, his frequent and forceful denunciation of the vice president is less a campaign strategy than the honest feelings of a fellow Indiana native with deep convictions, and even deeper political differences.
“It’s not part of some master plan,” Buttigieg said. “I’ve just noticed that people really care about what’s going on with this vice president and president, and I recognize that as somebody who saw this up close, that I can help people understand what’s going on and what to be wary of when it comes to this [vice president].”
If it were a strategy, however, it would be a smart one, Republican communications experts told The Daily Beast.
“The left and a lot of independents think Trump is... a loudmouthed dick,” said Liz Mair, a veteran Republican communications consultant who has broken with the party over Trump. “They also think he’s pretty racist and misogynistic and transphobic but maybe not homophobic per se, and kind of moderate on economic policy and not as into foreign adventurism… In some ways middle-of-the-road, just loud and annoying.”
On the other hand, Mair said, those same voters “think Pence is literally going to turn America into what’s depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“One of those things is a lot scarier for a whole suite of voters than the other,” said Mair, who has contributed as an opinion writer at The Daily Beast. “I would be willing to bet that among the Democratic primary electorate… there will be more who are more scared of the latter than the former.”
By juxtaposing himself with Pence, said Republican communications operative Tim Miller, Buttigieg also presents an opportunity to make good on his pledge to foster a new “Religious Left” in the country.
“In the end, you are going to have to be the nominee who can stand up to Trump to win—being an effective Pence foil is a good way to demonstrate that,” Miller said. “Pete’s style is a good contrast with Pence because it’s earnest. He doesn’t do it in a way that condescends towards ‘deplorable’ religious people.”
That kind of contrast, Buttigieg said, helped demonstrate the growing nationwide consensus around equality for LGBT people following the RFRA debacle—but it has also provided political refuge for bigotry of all kinds.
“At best, people with bigoted attitude are given cover—kind of the same as you’re seeing with the white nationalism,” he said. “At best, it kind of enables these things, because it gives some sort of tacit blessing from the highest office in the land.”
But Buttigieg isn’t running for president to confront Pence at every turn, he said.
“We do have to confront what is wrong about this presidency… but it’s not enough to just talk about what you’re against,” Buttigieg said. “We don’t need to dwell on it that long, because I think most people have made up their minds about that already. What you need to do is show how you’re going to do something better.”