The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is still one of the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for president, but his campaign is entering crunch time as Senator Bernie Sanders starts to pick up more delegates and more momentum.
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Should "Mayor Pete" make a move into first, he will have to build a multi-ethnic and multi-generational coalition in North Carolina and beyond.
"I've seen what's at stake and am partnering with everyone who can offer their own perspective to help move us forward," Buttigieg told ABC11 in his first TV interview with a North Carolina news station. "We have got to defeat Donald Trump. It is our only chance, and I'm offering the way forward to do that."
ABC11 caught up with Buttigieg in North Charleston the night before the last debate before Super Tuesday.
At the last debate, most candidates targeted former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, but Buttigieg said he'll take the stage in Charleston with a message on Sanders, the self-described "Democratic Socialist" who champions more progressive policies like government-run healthcare and canceling student debt.
"We need to win and we need to win up and down the ticket, and I'm very concerned with Senator Sanders at the top with a message that's really about rejecting anybody who doesn't agree 100 percent of the time," Buttigieg said. "I think the American people want a president you can look at and feel your blood pressure go down instead of through the roof, and I'm offering that as a matter of a different tone in addition to real, meaningful and bold policies."
ABC11's wide-ranging interview with Buttigieg also covers issues like affordable housing, the military and outreach to African American communities.
Here is a readout of our full conversation:
JONAH KAPLAN: Let's look back at 2016. This is a state that voted for Donald Trump for President and (Senator) Richard Burr, both Republicans, then voters also support (Governor) Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and (Attorney General) Josh Stein, a Democrat. How will you thread that needle?
MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well it shows you that there is no such thing as a permanently Red State and I think right now we're seeing a lot of Americans waking up to the reality that if we want to raise wages, empower workers, hold companies accountable, do something about climate change and gun violence, this president and his allies in Congress are not going to get the job done. It's why we've found that my message has been able to resonate - not just with fellow Democrats - but with independents and we've even seen Republicans crossing over to support us, which is exactly how we're going to need to succeed in November of 2020 because this is our only shot to beat Donald Trump.
JK: If this is our only shot to beat Donald Trump, how would a Democratic ticket do with Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket? He recently came under fire for comments he made about (former Cuban dictator) Fidel Castro. How do you respond to those comments and what do you think about his electability in a place like North Carolina?
PB: Well, I'm very concerned and I'm talking to a lot of others on the ticket. Remember this isn't just about the White House. This is critical House and Senate and state races around the country. Those districts we turned over in 2018 to get them into Democratic hands are critically important in order for the next president to get anything done in order to make sure we don't see any more extreme on the bench. We need to win and we need to win up and down the ticket, and I'm very concerned with Senator Sanders at the top with a message that's really about rejecting anybody who doesn't agree 100 percent of the time. It's just a fundamentally different idea of how to win and how to govern than mine, which is certainly unapologetically forward moving in our policies but also does it in a way that can bring people together. I think the American people want a president you can look at and feel your blood pressure go down instead of through the roof, and I'm offering that as a matter of a different tone in addition to real, meaningful and bold policies.
JK: You're coming down to the South where you need to build more of a coalition if you are to win the nomination. North Carolina, like South Carolina, is home to a historic Black and African American community. How do you intend to build that coalition and how do you intend to bridge some of the gaps that you have been criticized for?
PB: I want black voters to know that I'm never going to take any vote for granted and that I'm out here to earn that support, and I know that's a lot to ask, especially because people have had a matter of months rather than years or decades to get to know me. What we have put forward, the Frederick Douglas Plan, is the most comprehensive vision for Black America of any candidate right now, and I've been able to deliver in our hometown on black unemployment, poverty falling, supporting businesses - and the areas where we have a long way to go in my city and as a country. I've seen what's at stake and am partnering with everyone who can offer their own perspective to help move us forward. Most black voters I talk to are laser focused, in particular, on making sure that we beat Donald Trump. That is my focus too and I am the only candidate who has beaten Bernie Sanders anywhere. So if it comes down to it, and you're not too sure that Senator Sanders is going to be the answer to win this election that is a must win for so many with so much to lose, I'm offering a different way.
JK: When we talk about, affordable housing is probably a big part of that. You may not be aware, but in Durham, North Carolina, we had an instance where a place called McDougald Terrace, home to more than 100 families, they all had to be evacuated because of carbon monoxide leaks. What is your plan for affordable housing? How would you treat and how would you respond to a situation like we had in Durham?
PB: You know, I've had to manage situations like that as mayor, too, and what we've seen is that so many Americans are either in substandard housing or cannot afford good housing options at all. It's why we need to make sure there's federal leadership, and I've put forward a comprehensive housing policy to make sure that we build more units of affordable housing and raise the standards, as well as empowering tenets, making sure unlawful evictions stop, and working with cities to deliver real solutions. We cannot go on like this. Right now there's a crisis both of income - so many Americans working full time, they don't earn enough to where they can afford housing, even in relatively affordable places - and a crisis of supply where we need to create more affordable housing options.
JK: The last debate, a lot of the Democratic contenders all kind of targeted Mayor Bloomberg. To my knowledge, he's never won a race, he doesn't have any delegates. You have plenty of delegates and so does Senator Sanders. Will more attention be focused on Senator Sanders tomorrow night?
PB: You know we're just a few days away from a situation where Senator Sanders might have an unstoppable lead, and for the majority of Democrats who are looking for a different way, I'm offering, again, the only campaign to defeat Senator Sanders anywhere, where we had a success in Iowa, and the campaign that's doing it by drawing together Democrats as well as independents and some Republicans and that is so important for us to win in November. We have got to defeat Donald Trump. It is our only chance, and I'm offering the way forward to do that.
JK: My last question for you is about your history in the military and your credentials there. North Carolina and in our market is Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune, so many different places where the military is. Talk about your outreach to these military communities and especially building this notion that a Democrat can be pro-military as opposed to some pundits who say only the Republicans can own patriotism.
PB: As a veteran who knows what's at stake being sent to war by an American president, I am committed to supporting not only service members but their families and veterans when they come home. We've not only put forward plans to do it - I've lived it. When we've got a President like this one, who avoided serving when it was his turn, who says traumatic brain injury is no big deal, who diverts dollars that could be used for military housing and schools and supporting military families and send them to a wall that's never going to be built, this is the best opportunity we've had in a long time to challenge this president and his party on military issues. Why wouldn't we put forward a veteran who has actually had that experience?
JK: Mayor Buttigeig, thanks so much for taking time with us and ABC11.
PB: Thank you, good to be with you.