Jack Colwell: Buttigieg may not win, but he can't lose
Thursday, February 23, 2017 9:44 AM
SOUTH BEND – South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg doesn’t have the votes to be selected Democratic national chairman. But right now it appears that nobody does.
The two chairmanship contenders regarded as frontrunners are in a way still fighting the fight from the Democratic presidential primaries of 2016. They are Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, who was a zealot for Bernie Sanders, and Tom Perez, labor secretary in the Obama administration, who is favored by long-time supporters of Hillary Clinton.
According to the New York Times analysis of the contest after the final regional faceoff of the contenders in Baltimore last weekend, neither of the frontrunners “has secured the support of anywhere close to a majority” of the 447 Democratic National Committee members who will pick a winner in Atlanta later this week.
For an upset win in a crowded field of 10 candidates for chairman, Buttigieg needs to be a widespread second choice, or to come up through the middle, a compromise choice between the Sanders and Clinton primary combatants.
Being a second choice could be decisive if neither of the frontrunners wins with the needed majority on a first ballot. If the contest goes to a second ballot or more, the committee members could then look for a compromise choice to break the deadlock. If Buttigieg is viewed by a lot of the Ellison and Perez backers as their second choice, as a good compromise, he could eventually win.
Long shot? Yes. Possible? Yes, in view of the favorable national news coverage and some key endorsements that the mayor has received. His strategy is to come up through the middle, convincing the DNC members that they should stop fighting the Bernie vs. Hillary fight and pick somebody occupying middle ground, able to work with both sides and bring party unity to oppose the agenda of President Donald Trump.
“Why not go with somebody who isn’t a product of one faction or another faction, but somebody who is here to deliver the fresh start our party needs,” Buttigieg said in Baltimore. “I don’t know why we’d want to live through it a second time.”
Also at that forum, Buttigieg called Trump “a draft-dodging chickenhawk” who could be “ordering people I served with (on active duty in Afghanistan) back into another conflict because he can’t be bothered to do his job properly.”
That remark, referring to reports of Trump receiving five deferments from the draft during the Vietnam War, took some of the mayor’s South Bend constituents by surprise. He has not been known for such strong rhetoric. But Buttigieg wasn’t talking to the South Bend Rotary. He was appealing to highly partisan members of the DNC who want a leader who will take on Trump forcefully.
It was helpful to Buttigieg that former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley endorsed him on the eve of the Baltimore meeting. Perez is from Maryland. Also, last weekend in Chicago, Buttigieg was a guest at a meeting of some influential Illinois Democrats, including former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley of the powerful Daley family. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Daley endorsed Buttigieg. Craine’s Chicago Business reported that Illinois Senate President John Cullerton “effectively endorsed” him as well.
Even more significant was that, as Craine’s reported, the meeting of “about 60 people including former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, was hosted by Susan and Michel Axelrod, the wife and son of David Axelrod, the political guru behind the successful presidential campaigns of Barack Obama. Axelrod has had nice things to say about Buttigieg, but for various reasons he has refrained from making a formal endorsement. The activity of his wife and son sent a very effective message.”
Four former Democratic national chairmen have endorsed Buttigieg.
He may not win. But he can’t lose. As a key backer of the mayor observed, Buttigieg already has won enhanced national attention and prestige and has expanded his donor base for whatever he seeks in the future.
Colwell has covered politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.