Pete Buttigieg on wine caves and white privilege

‘I’d say the tone of it on the internet has been a little over the top.’

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg at an ethanol plant in Iowa
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg tours the Golden Grain Energy ethanol plant in Mason City on Nov. 4. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Pete Buttigieg knew he would come under attack from fellow Democrats when he started to break into the top tier of contenders for the 2020 nomination. Indeed, the phrase “wine cave” trended on Twitter before Christmas, when rival Elizabeth Warren brought up a high-dollar fundraiser Buttigieg had attended in Napa Valley.

“I’m more of a beer guy,” Buttigieg said in a recent interview with Iowa Capital Dispatch.  “I enjoy wine but I don’t know much about it,” he added with a shrug.

The candidate known as Mayor Pete by his supporters has been called much worse names than #winecavepete on the Internet, to the point that the New York Times last month published a Sunday magazine article titled “How the Internet Came to Loathe Pete Buttigieg.” He’s been accused of being “bourgeois,” a term that disparages middle-class, capitalist values that serve to protect the wealthy.

“You know that as you advance, people are going to come at you. I’d say the tone of it on the internet has been a little over the top, especially from folks who we share 90 percent of the same values and ideas,” he said.  “But it’s the heat of competition. I get it.”

His family may not be quite as sanguine. “It’s a good thing that Mom’s not on Twitter,” he joked.  His husband, Chasten, “famously is (on Twitter) but I think the two of us have both learned to spend less time on social media.”

Despite the vitriol, Buttigieg has maintained his top-tier status in Iowa.  One recent poll by CBS News and YouGov showed him in a three-way tie at 23 percent with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.  Warren and Amy Klobuchar rounded out the top five. The Des Moines Register/CNN Iowa Poll released Friday had Buttigieg slipping behind Sanders and Warren but still holding a spot in the top tier.

Part of the reason for that may be the former South Bend mayor’s unwillingness to be distracted by the circular firing squad characterized by what he calls “purity issues.”

“I get the politics of it, and folks need to distinguish themselves, but I’m trying to make sure we keep an eye on the big picture here. And the fact that this is partly a contest for who’s going to be ready to take on Donald Trump and the fight of our lives.”

But he says he sees a hazard for Democrats in the general election from what he calls the “lurch to the extremes that would say nothing counts unless it goes all the way.”

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, talks to the Iowa Capital Dispatch at the A/C Hotel in Des Moines. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

There’s a slight edge to his voice as he continues:  “Yeah, this idea that, you know, (a) game-changing proposal on college affordability doesn’t count unless you also make tuition free for the top 10 percent” of income earners.

Warren and Sanders have proposed free college tuition for all Americans; Buttigieg also has a free college plan but would reduce benefits for higher-income people.

He takes issue with the idea that Democrats can’t raise campaign money from millionaires and billionaires but they can give their kids free college tuition.

“Sometimes I will be in a room with a lot of wealthy people, letting them know that if they support me and we get our way, their taxes are gonna go up,” he said.

He does not dismiss those who attribute his success, at least in part, to the spoils of “white privilege,” however.

Buttigieg calls his upbringing “solidly middle class.” His father was a literature professor at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. “I went and looked up the house I lived in as a little kid, just to see what it’s going on the market for now.  I think it’s 60,000 bucks,” he said.

But, he added, “You know, we were better off than I think I realized. … We were fine. We were definitely not wealthy but not struggling either.”

He didn’t get into Harvard because his ancestors went there, he said.  “I just did really well in high school.”

But, he adds, “a lot of things that just sort of quietly benefited me are things that you’re more likely to experience in America if you’re white.”

“We talk a lot about inherited wealth in the country. That’s not just an issue for inheriting great fortunes,” he said. “The difference between, you know, starting out in a household that’s got, you know, 40,000 bucks versus zero is huge. And there’s a very strong racial pattern to that.”

He’s not apologizing for it, though.

“I think the really important thing is to think about how to make myself useful to others. And it’s part of how I, without ever comparing experiences, but it’s part of how I try to share my story as somebody whose rights were expanded by others. Many of whom were nothing like me,” he said.

Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay president if elected, doesn’t always mention it without being asked. But he adds:

“Yeah, a lot of straight people in good places like Iowa helped bring marriage equality to people like me. So it helps me understand how I need to make myself useful to people who are on the wrong side of some of these fences of privilege that we have to acknowledge.”