Buttigieg addresses race and health care at U. of C. political forum

Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg answers a question from the audience during his appearance at a University of Chicago Institute of Politics conversation with David Axelrod. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff writer

Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who has long struggled to connect with African American voters on the campaign trail, said his urban housing policy was one of many that could advance racial justice should he be elected president next year.

“One feature of the Douglass Plan is what we call a 21st Century Homestead Act,” Buttigieg said in response to a question, referring to his platform for Black America named after the 19th century abolitionist and civil rights leader. “This is about ensuring that people have an opportunity to remain in neighborhoods that they’ve been in historically — especially neighborhoods people were redlined into a generation ago, only to be gentrified out of once now that they’ve become desirable.

“It’s a mechanism that would get more equity into the hands of often minority and disadvantaged residents, and it’s one example of how the federal government can lead the way.” He also called for more funding for Section 8 housing vouchers and public housing.

Buttigieg used his Friday appearance at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics to speak about eliminating the Electoral College, gerrymandering and pushing for a reform of the federal judiciary, but he conceded that health care and wages were at the top of voters’ minds.

Still, he candidly discussed race relations and what his policy proposals could do for nonwhite communities.

Buttigieg said that Black audiences have been receptive to his agenda, but that African Americans are keen on candidates with whom they are familiar, like Biden. Candidates’ path to support, he said, lie in building trust and making platforms clear.

As mayor of South Bend, IN., Buttigieg has presided over a series of racially charged incidents involving policing in his city, including a shooting death in June. He also cut ties with a Chicago lawyer who had tried to prevent the release of the footage the 2015 murder of Laquan McDonald.

“As the mayor of a city that has had a lot of anguish over police-community relations, I believe very strongly that transparency and justice for Laquan McDonald is a lot more important than a campaign contribution,” he said.

IOP Director David Axelrod asked Buttigieg — who spoke to an overwhelmingly white audience at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. King Drive, in August — about his lack of support among African Americans, specifically asking whether he has encountered resistance because he is openly gay.

“It’s there,” Buttigieg said. “I think there is a process going on in the Black community in general and the African American churches in particular around this.” He framed his response around the experiences of LGBTQ youth of color: “I think that it is in the name of compassion towards youth who really need their churches to be there for them that a lot of progress is currently happening on this issue.”

Buttigieg said that the replacement of racist institutions and structures with neutral ones is not going to yield equality. He said he is in favor of considering reparations, including an elimination of school debt for Pell Grant-eligible graduates who start small businesses and credit access reform.

“There’s a conversation that needs to happen among White Americans. This can’t be something that is only raised as a sort of specialty topic for Black audiences,” he said “There’s got to be a way without arousing some of the defensiveness that a lot of people have to talk about how everyone is implicated in this problem and how everyone can be involved in a reparative or restorative process to make it better in our lifetimes.”

He called himself an advocate for bold change, but he objected to the “Medicare for All” proposal that Sen. Elizabeth Warren has put forth because he said she has not explained how to finance it.

“You say things in a campaign, and then they put you in charge and you actually have to deliver them,” he said. I think anybody who allows the phrase ‘Medicare for All’ to escape their lips in a campaign season has a responsibility to explain what it would actually take to get there. I think it’s striking that on the highest visibility domestic issue in the Democratic primary, the current Democratic frontrunner has not detailed how it would work, other than to speak to Sen. Sanders’ plan.”

But Buttigieg said his proposals were no less audacious — both because they would be unifying and because they would be possible to enact in a country where, as he noted, the life expectancy is falling while the gross domestic product is increasing.

“I’m convinced that we can get that same goal,” he said. “It’s not like I am proposing some little, technical tweak. I am proposing the biggest reform to health care in this country in 50 to 60 years.” His plan would allow anyone to get into Medicare while allowing for private health insurance for those that want it. He said this could be done without middle class tax increases, though it would depend on repealing Trump’s 2017 tax cuts and closing loopholes for corporations.