A tense town hall Sunday in the wake of an officer-involved shooting in South Bend has presented the first significant challenge for Mayor Pete Buttigieg in his run for president, but political scientists say it's too soon to say how it might affect his campaign.
"The big question is not, will something bad happen?" said Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville. "The real question is, can you recover? That's the period we're in right now."
The fatal shooting of Eric Jack Logan, a black man, by a white South Bend police officer last week highlighted tense race relations in the mayor's city - and also put into sharper focus his, at times, uneasy relationship with the city's black community.
Buttigieg suspended his campaign to return home and received harsh criticism from city residents at the town hall about the officer not turning on his body camera and the mayor's failure to hire minority police officers. The South Bend Police Department is almost 90% white, despite the city being 40% percent black or Hispanic.
A pivotal moment: Buttigieg campaign faces test after fatal police shooting of a black man
Logan's brother, Tyree Bonds, told IndyStar Monday that many in the community are worried Buttigieg and the police department will let the shooting "blow over," but they will do their best to prevent that from happening.
"We just want the truth," Bonds said, as he visited his brothers' memorial Monday. "We are going to be at this all of the time."
Buttigieg has failed to capture much support from black voters in polls so far, and events at home could now emphasize the mayor's inability to connect with them.
"He's had a charmed campaign up until now, but he has been severely criticized," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "People knew that he had a problem attracting the support of African Americans before this, but this has underlined it and perhaps made it more difficult for him to secure that support."
Time will tell - and Buttigieg has time
Dion said though the current backlash could be difficult for his presidential campaign, Buttigieg has plenty of time for him to address these concerns. He added the debates, including Buttigieg's first on Thursday, offer the chance to remind people why they like him.
"We are months and months away from the first votes being cast," Dion said. "He's still in the top five, and he has time to regain his footing."
Black voters choose Democrats about 90% of the time, making it an important constituency, said Andrew Downs, Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne. He said "it is very difficult, if not close to impossible" to get the Democratic nomination without black voters.
But black Americans are not monolithic, like any other group of people, said Marjorie Hershey, a political science professor at Indiana University. She said it's possible the criticism he has received isn't indicative of how a majority of black voters feel.
Elizabeth Bennion, a professor of political science at Indiana University South Bend, said locally, Buttigieg has support from longtime organizations representing black citizens, such as the NAACP.
"I think the mayor wants to reach out to leaders, but there is not one leader to speak for all African Americans," Bennion said. "It can be a challenge to build support because within African Americans, there are a lot of different perspectives."
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Nadia Brown, associate professor of political science and African American studies at Purdue University, said the town hall could also show black voters in other states that Indiana isn't just a majority white state, and Buttigieg is capable of talking about black issues.
"I think he's doing the right thing, I think by actually showing up to talk honestly about what the police could have done better and how he as the mayor could have done better," Brown said. "It shows that he's accountable for his city. Even if his actions are not exactly what residents wanted to see, he showed up."
Bennion said she attended the town hall and it seemed some appreciated Buttigieg's promise to investigate not only this particular incident but the department's policies on the whole.
It was a smart move for Buttigieg to respond to residents' requests to ask the Department of Justice to look into the shooting, Brown said, because it shows that he listened to the community's wishes. But he shouldn't stop there, she said - Buttigieg should also acknowledge broader institutional biases that lead to officer-involved shootings.
"They don't just happen out of nowhere," Brown said.
Buttigieg's campaign issued a statement Monday saying communities and police departments across the nation are in "crisis."
"Our American values are at stake in the need for us to address the deep mistrust of police and governments among communities of color, which flows directly from the consequences of systemic racism," the statement said.
Buttigieg's opponents' opportunity
Backlash from the shooting may be used against Buttigieg by other candidates moving forward, Sabato said, even though so far they have largely left him alone.
"I think they'll use this," Sabato said. "For a 37-year-old who's entire public office career has been mayor of a very small city, everything has to go perfectly to win a presidential nomination. Things haven't gone perfectly over the last week."
Buttigieg's position as an executive, not a legislator, is both an opportunity and a possible obstacle, Hershey said. He can prove himself as a leader, but he will be faced with challenges a senator or representative won't.
Most in the field are legislators, and Dion said as members of bodies with 100 or 435 people, they can explain issues away more easily than Buttigieg.
"The buck stops with the mayor or governor," Dion said. "Anything that goes wrong lands on your doorstep."
Buttigieg's unease among some in the community pre-dates the officer-invovled shooting. He also has been criticized by some in the black community for for having demoted the city's first black police chief and for demolishing hundreds of dilapidated homes in predominantly minority neighborhoods.
But Logan's shooting, in particular, has brought that rift to the surface.
The South Bend community, Bonds said, just wants to see pressure on the police department and action from Buttigieg in the form of an independent and full investigation..
"He's the mayor. He knows what's going on," Bonds said. "Just do your job. That's all we ask of you."
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Pete Buttigieg's tense town hall might hurt - or help - his campaign