Do Pete Buttigieg’s Donors Know Him Better Than We Do?

Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg answers questions during a town hall community meeting in South Bend, Indiana. 

In a field of 24 candidates, Democratic presidential hopefuls must attempt to stand out from the crowd, and Pete Buttigieg is no different. He foregrounds his personal story, relative youth, and roots in the country’s geographic center to pitch voters on a generational departure. “Such a moment calls for hopeful and audacious voices from communities like ours,” Buttigieg said in his announcement speech. “And yes, it calls for a new generation of leadership.”

But when asked to fill in the details of that leadership, Buttigieg has been more circumspect. Unlike Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, he has not welcomed the wealthy donor class’s contempt. Unlike Joe Biden, he has not forthrightly defended the rich, assuring them that their “standard of living” will not change.

Instead, Buttigieg embraces ambiguity and resists a clear definition. And the wealthy donor class is seemingly rewarding him for that choice with a bonanza of campaign contributions. Elite access enables the wealthy to know something about Buttigieg the broader public does not.

At first, Buttigieg’s lack of a policy agenda seemed innocuous, given his status as a long-shot candidate. As he has rocketed into contention, however, the ambiguity has begun to seem less innocent, especially as the ultra-wealthy line up behind his largely nonexistent platform. While he has made an effort recently to expand on some of his campaign’s policies on his website, these promises lack meaningful detail.

It’s not that other candidates haven’t chased big dollars during the primary. But at least they have a record against which we can judge their political instincts, values, and leadership style. Buttigieg is asking us to trust that he is the answer to the party’s woes, despite having no federal record to lean on or even a clear articulation of how he would govern. Without an affirmative vision, we can’t help but draw conclusions from the available information, none of which paints a particularly hopeful picture.

Take, for example, his relationships with Silicon Valley funders, which are unusually deep. These connections are largely due to having been close friends at Harvard with two of Mark Zuckerberg’s college roommates: Joe Green, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Buttigieg has subsequently cultivated many other leading Silicon Valley voices, including a partner (Cyan Bannister) of Trump’s biggest tech backer, Peter Thiel (himself Facebook’s first outside investor).

Buttigieg was one of the first 300 users on Facebook. He even escorted Mark Zuckerberg around his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, in 2017, assisting Zuckerberg’s “self-challenge” to visit more of America (which was likely Zuckerberg’s own presidential trial balloon, until Cambridge Analytica popped it). As Buttigieg started eyeing the race for Democratic National Committee chair, Green (now a tech entrepreneur) and Facebook associates hosted events and introduced Buttigieg to fellow wealthy tech donors such as Chris Cox, formerly Facebook’s chief product officer, and Y Combinator Chair Sam Altman.

Since announcing his run for president in April, Buttigieg has taken several fundraising trips to Silicon Valley, amassing support from executives of Uber, Google, and others. Recently, Buttigieg expressed solidarity with Uber drivers protesting the company for an end to pay cuts and the implementation of a drivers’ bill of rights. Three weeks later, he attended a fundraiser co-hosted by Uber executive Chelsea Kohler.

While Buttigieg has generically supported strengthening antitrust standards, unlike Warren and Sanders, he has stopped short of calling for Silicon Valley behemoths to be broken apart. To be sure, if Buttigieg were serious about antitrust enforcement, Big Tech would face at least some consequences. Why, then, has his candidacy taken fire in Silicon Valley? What do these donors know that we don’t? To allay these concerns, Buttigieg must be more explicit about how he will fulfill his promise to strengthen antitrust; his present ambiguity leaves far too many gaps through which Silicon Valley’s interests may prevail.

Unfortunately, this critique does not just apply to Big Tech, but also more traditional areas like Wall Street. While several Democratic candidates, like Warren and Sanders, have given Wall Street executives pause, Buttigieg is decidedly not among them. In fact, The New York Times put Buttigieg atop the list of candidates receiving favor from Wall Street donors, ahead of Biden and Kamala Harris.

One of the most notable financial-industry titans supporting Buttigieg is Tony James, the executive vice chairman of Blackstone, the world’s largest private-equity firm. James hosted a fundraising event at his home for Buttigieg earlier in June.

Blackstone’s interests are opposed to major reforms on many fronts. Any plan to make housing more affordable, for example, will have to contend with private equity’s grip on single-family home rentals. Indeed, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing directly called out private equity in general, and Blackstone in particular, for representing a “devastating” force undermining tenants.

That James has fundraised for Buttigieg is an indication of his confidence that a President Buttigieg will not hurt private equity’s real-estate interests. This does not mean that Buttigieg will fail to address housing affordability; he can still, for example, encourage Congress to increase federal funding for affordable housing, as his “Issues” page promises. Of course, that would not threaten Blackstone’s business model.

The sparseness of Buttigieg’s policy promises leaves open many important but lower-profile avenues by which firms like Blackstone can get exactly what they want. Chief among these are executive-branch appointments, where a president’s real power lies.

It is unlikely, for example, that Buttigieg will appoint housing policy officials who will stop federal housing agencies from selling underwater mortgages to private-equity firms and hedge funds.

Tony James himself was a top contender for Treasury Secretary in a Hillary Clinton administration—perhaps he is aiming there again? From that position, James would have vast power to slow progress on any number of fronts himself, including on housing policy. It is worth asking how much Buttigieg is accommodating donor ambitions, as he works to potentially outraise all opponents in the latest fundraising quarter.

Buttigieg’s sparse record took a major hit this past weekend, as tensions boiled over in South Bend after the recent killing of a black man by a white police officer. A town hall Buttigieg convened descended into recriminations, suggesting that as mayor, he had done far too little for poor black residents in the city. One woman yelled: “We don’t trust you!” These are people who have lived under Buttigieg as a chief executive. Between them and his donors, we may be able to understand how Buttigieg would govern, even as he refuses to clearly tell us.

In this week’s debate, Buttigieg could allay our concerns. He could tell us that a Tony James, a Joe Green, or anyone like them will have no role in his administration. He could prove that he is not merely a younger version of Joe Biden by making clear that he is ready to counter the interests of the wealthy donor class—indeed, that he might even change their standard of living.

But Buttigieg’s strategic opacity caters to Democratic big-money donors, who prioritize the absence of political consensus behind policy proposals that directly contradict their interests. Until such time as he makes specific commitments, activists and voters should not be fooled by his polished persona and fresh biography. Wealthy funders don’t throw their support behind candidates blindly.

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