Rep. Brown explains why he thinks Buttigieg is the real deal

U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) endorsed Pete Buttigieg, citing his military experience. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Coming off the weekend campaigning for Pete Buttigieg in Iowa and acting as a surrogate at events in Detroit, Rep. Anthony Brown is telling voters the former South Bend mayor is the real deal.

In an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade, Brown said he’s been paying attention for months to the presidential candidate — the first competitive openly gay presidential candidate — and was impressed with his performance in debates as well as his vision for foreign policy.

After meeting with him in November, Brown said he was impressed with what he saw, then went to Iowa as an observer to “kick the tires, look under the hood.”

“I liked what I saw,” Brown said. “I saw an audience that he was connecting to. There seemed to be good energy, good reception in his message.”

All that led to Brown’s endorsement of Buttigieg earlier this month. The Maryland Democrat is the first black member of Congress to support Buttigieg, which stands out because Buttigieg has been polling at zero percent among black voters in some polls.

Much of that lack of support has been attributed to Buttigieg’s actions as mayor, such as his response to a white South Bend police officer shooting a black man on his watch.

Brown said that issue is valid, but that the black community in South Bend has been fully behind Buttigieg and remains so in the presidential race.

“If you look at South Bend itself, and there you can look at the African-American civic leaders, elected leaders, business leaders who know him best, he’s got a tremendous amount of support among those African-American leaders,” Brown said.

Read the full interview below:

Washington Blade: Tell me a little bit about how you first met Pete Buttigieg and what your initial takeaways were from him.

Rep. Anthony Brown: The first time I met him was in September, and it was a brief five-minute encounter at the Congressional Black Caucus weekend conference gala. It was a big event and literally five minutes.

An immediate connection there. It’s been my common experience with someone who served in uniform. Although I always say “Beat Navy” because I’m an Army guy. I think the fact that he’s in the Navy and I’m in the Army, there’s just that sort of fraternal connection that we seem to have, so we connected well. It felt good, but again it was mostly just sort of small talk, and stuff like that.

Prior to that — that was in September — I actually started paying attention to him as early as July. In July, he gave a foreign policy, national security speech at Indiana University.

I didn’t see the speech. I wasn’t there. I read it with my military background and my work on the House Armed Services Committee. I knew that where the candidates are on foreign policy, national security would mean a lot to me. And I was very impressed by his precision, his vision, his priorities and stuff like that. So, he caught my attention.

And I saw watching him during the debates, his breadth of understanding, along all of the issues. He seemed very thoughtful and not rehearsed very comfortable, yet not overly confident. So I was impressed by his grasp of the issues, and the way that he was able to communicate thoughts and issues and ideas.

And then in November, I guess it was, we sat down for 30 minutes, and we had a real good conversation. Basically, his campaign had reached out to my office and we finally made it work.

And I had the opportunity to talk to him about more on national security. I asked about how the campaign was doing, his relationship with the African-American community, his record in South Bend and he was almost as impressive, well actually I would say he was just as impressive, in my thoughts on various issues as I was on his.

And then in December, I decided to spend a weekend on the campaign trail, sort of like kick the tires, look under the hood, see whether this guy was the real deal and I thought the best way to do it was to spend time with him in Iowa, and I did that the weekend after Christmas. And I basically went there to hear him, but my eyes were on the audience and I watched him in probably six or seven different large audiences, venues, town halls and the like.

And I liked what I saw. I saw an audience that he was connecting to. There seemed to be good energy, good reception in his message. And I came out of that weekend knowing that I was going to endorse him. So that’s kind of the chronology, if you will.

Blade: I can see that a lot went into your endorsement. Did you receive any blowback when you made that announcement?

Brown: No. I mean, no blowback. I mean, you know, a lot of people just started asking why, which is not uncommon, and I’ve endorsed candidates at every level on the ballot, first of all, because I’ve been in this business for 25 years, and you always get sort of like, ‘Hey, what’s that all about? What went into it? Did you have a relationship? What was the particular connection? And so, there was certainly that.

I think the fact that I was the first member of the Congressional Black Caucus to endorse him, that caught a lot of other people’s attention, but I wouldn’t say blowback. I would just say a lot of inquiries, right? “Hey, tell me more. How do you get there?” And it was more of that…Little negative reaction if you will to it. So, yeah, I think that’s been my experience in the last three weeks.

Blade: It’s no secret though that polls are showing Mayor Pete has virtually no support among black voters. Why is that?

Brown: Well, first of all, you got to set the table, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. The two candidates in this race who’ve run nationwide, the Vice President [Joseph Biden], and Sen. Sanders. Together, you have probably 70 percent in most polls of African-American support and then the other however many candidates are left — I don’t know, maybe 10 — split that, most of whom are in single digits.

And I really attribute the lack of support if you will, to lack of familiarity, right? The more that communities get to know Pete, and this is true whether it’s African-American, the Latino community, working-class community, rural community, Iowa, South Carolina, etc., the more that people get to know Pete Buttigieg — and once they get beyond how to properly pronounce his name — and are squarely considering not just who he is, as a person, but what are the differences he’s going to make in my life? In other words, where is he on issues? What are his priorities? What are his values?…People that know Pete Buttigieg are the people who support Pete Buttigieg.

And I think Iowa is a great example, right? A year ago today, he was probably registering near zero percentages as well in the polls, along with all the other campaigns. He spent a lot of time in Iowa, to strengthen his organization, enthusiasm that I saw when I was there, and his standing among the voters is measured in many polls. He’s done very well.

If you look at South Bend itself, and there you can look at the African-American civic leaders, elected leaders, business leaders who know him best, he’s got a tremendous amount of support among those African-American leaders.

Blade: But should voters be concerned about a South Bend white police officer shooting a black man and housing projects at the expense of low-income homes under Mayor Pete’s watch?

Brown: I think America is concerned. Many of us are when you see police community relations that results in a police-involved death.

We had one not only renowned across the country, but it caught the attention of the world, in Baltimore, right? With the Freddie Gray police death and the riots that ensued, and you and I can sort go through a long litany of cases that captured the attention of this country and the world, where injustices have occurred at the hands of police that have resulted in the loss of life or injury. That’s unacceptable. That’s true whether it’s in South Bend, Baltimore or anywhere else in the country.

And I think one of the things that I respect and appreciate about Pete Buttigieg is that he understands those issues and he has worked during his eight years as a mayor in South Bend to bring together a very diverse community, to make sure that he in a very collaborative way…that they’re making the kinds of adjustments and improvements that they need.

For example, he took the public safety board and reconstituted it. It’s now a majority-minority board. If you look at the complaints for excessive force by police in the last four years — I don’t have the exact number at my fingertips, but you can get it, or we can help you get it — those complaints have gone down significantly.

So it’s something that happens tragically and unfortunately in far too many of our cities around the country. And the question is what are we doing as a people, as a community? What do leaders do in response to that to take the appropriate measures?

I know that now, all 170 of the sworn officers of the South Bend Police Department have body cameras. That was not the case before Pete was mayor of South Bend. So through this experience and working with the community, [Buttigieg] has instituted quite a number of reforms or corrective action to improve community-police relations in South Bend.

Blade: But would you address the issue of his housing plan that many have said was at the expense of black-owned homes in South Bend?

Brown: And I think that’s another example of where you got to start broad and come into it. I served with a mayor when I was lieutenant governor of Maryland. Gov. Martin O’Malley, he was the mayor of Baltimore City before he was governor, and so, I got to see firsthand how you know someone can take that experience and translate that into higher office.

What I mean by that is the mayors are where the rubber hits the road, and you’ve got a lot of issues that have such urgency in the day-to-day lives of the people you serve, whether it’s public safety, which we’re talking about, public education, housing, jobs. You’re on the ground there and you feel it in your working there every day. … You develop a plan, and we’re going to revitalize housing and improve housing options in our city.

Some cities in America have done a good job at it. Some have done a really poor job at it. And so, the plan they executed, and the plan they had to figure out, “Hey, how much of this do we demolish, how much should we keep in place and we have revitalized etc.?” And the goal is to improve the quality of life in our communities.

And he had a number of challenges that he would deal with, right? Absentee landlords who were not investing money in the property. He also had people who wanted to stay. Some had the resources to, revitalize, some needed more assistance from the city, so he set down on the plan, and during the course of the program, making adjustments. The community said, “Hey, wait a second. It looks like you’re going to be taking down too many houses.” OK, let’s take a look. Let’s work together, let’s sit down together, make the adjustments we need.

That’s just a long way of saying that today while he didn’t get it perfect, and I don’t think there are many municipal programs that from planning and execution to completion, anyone will ever say are perfect, Pete made a positive contribution to improving housing options and housing affordability in South Bend. And did that by working with the community. That had some obstacles, they had some challenges, they had some things they didn’t foresee at the front end, but continually staying in conversation with the community, making the necessary adjustments.

As part of that, if you look at homelessness in South Bend, homelessness has declined in South Bend at rates faster than the drop in homelessness nationwide. So not perfect, but certainly something where, you can look at and say, “Hey, they made some real progress in the areas of housing in South Bend.”

Blade: In terms of Mayor Pete being the first major openly gay presidential candidate, what do you think his success means for where LGBTQ people are in the United States?

Brown: We’re in a time where over the last several years, we’ve seen a number of barriers being broken. And, you know, whether by gender, by race, ethnicity, and in this campaign a real opportunity when it comes to the LGBT community.

And we’re also living in a country where generations certainly younger than me — I’m 58, I feel young — but are living in a much more diverse community, country and culture.

I’ve got a 20-year-old, I got a 24-year-old, I got two 19-20 year olds. They’re growing up in an environment and culture of diversity and inclusion, unlike what I grew up in and certainly unlike what my parents grew up with. And it’s because there are people…whether it’s gender, race, ethnicity, orientation or identification, who have the courage to step out and to not let what has traditionally been a barrier, and a divide in this country.

But if you had the courage and the tenacity to pursue what every American should be able to pursue. So you’ve got a young Pete Buttigieg who wants to give this country the very best that he has to offer, his skills and talents, his ability and not let any sort of fabricated opticals prevent him from getting in the way.

And I believe that certainly his candidacy alone, but also when he’s elected president and sworn in in January of next year, that’s going to be a very positive evolution in our country for how we can and we continue to overcome those barriers and those glass ceilings.

Blade: You’ve been campaigning for Pete in Iowa and acting as a surrogate for him in Detroit, how would you gauge the reception for him in those places?

Brown: So, I spent, let’s see, probably three-and-a-half, almost four days in Iowa, two days, as I mentioned as an observer, two days as a participant. He’s got a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, and the organization is phenomenal. That’s what counts because in Iowa when you got the caucuses, it’s an organizational effort, right? And to champion that has the ability to organize and harness enthusiasm and convert that to large crowd size, that’s a good indication that you’re going to be able to do that on caucus night. Harness the energy, organize it and get that turned out on caucus night.

And when I was out there as an observer and I didn’t really identify myself to people, but I was engaging caucus-goers…I also had the opportunity to engage members of your colleagues in the media. One or two recognized me, but a lot of local media didn’t…And the feedback I got from that he’s drawing the largest crowd in Iowa. And off in counties where it’s been said, man, the last Democrat we saw was when John Edwards was out here campaigning, however many years ago that was? So, there’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm.

I was in one meeting. It wasn’t called a town hall. It was the Urban Dreamers, a block party…that all candidates have been invited to, so it would have to be in late December, that’s what Pete came through. And about 75 people showed up at that one. Maybe a few more. And it was organized by a number of community groups including the NAACP. And that energy, and that sort of like positive affirmation in response to his message, very much resembles that energy and enthusiasm that I saw in places like Council Bluffs, which is on the far western end of Iowa where in a room where…I probably could have counted on both hands the number of African Americans in that room.

My point being that in both diverse audiences in Iowa to less diverse audiences in Iowa, I felt a lot of energy in both settings, and a lot of that vertical nod of the head like, “I like what I’m hearing. I like what this guy stands for. I like how he [speaks] with his faith, he frames up his values, and he’s got a vision for how together — because belonging is one of the themes of this campaign — together, we all belong, we all have responsibility, and we’re going to make this country a better place for everyone.” And just a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

Blade: You just mentioned faith, was that a factor in your decision to endorse Mayor Pete?

Brown: Look, I’m someone of an abiding faith. Pete and I were both born Catholic and I think he now attends the Episcopal Church…and I visit a lot of churches myself. It’s a way that I try to connect with my community and so, when I hear Pete talking about “when I was hungry, you fed me, when I was a foreigner in a strange land, you welcomed me in,” and how he ties those themes that are certainly rooted in the New Testament, and he weaves that into our responsibility, our obligations in the work that we do as public servants. That’s very appealing to me.

It’s not that Pete is quoting scripture although I understand he has…He weaves in the principles of faith and the tenets of Scripture that I’m very familiar with. So that certainly, it’s hard for me to say attribute one thing to why I decided to endorse, but certainly he incorporates faith. He doesn’t have fear and runs away from it. You often hear Pete say now no party can hijack religion, and that this country belongs to all Americans of any faith, every faith or no faith at all, right? He’s speaks to the importance of faith, and that’s attractive to me.

Blade: One other issue that’s important for our readers I wanted to ask you about is the transgender military ban, which I know you’ve been outspoken against. Do you expect Congress to overturn that this year?

Brown: As you know, in the Democratic-led House we got that provision in the National Defense Authorization Act and that’s one of the vehicles to do this because obviously the defense authorization act is a must-pass bill, and we were able to get a number of provisions in there that were contentious like the 12 days of paid parental leave, the “ban the box” for federal employment applications and things like that. We were not successful to repeal the transgender ban, much to my disappointment, because as you rightly point out, that’s a hot topic for me and I’ve been focused on that with laser-like precision.

Do I believe that a standalone bill, that we can pass that through both houses of the Congress and make it through the Senate to the president’s desk for signature? I’m not optimistic that we can do that. The question that I have not been asked, nor have I really considered, will the House leadership put up a standalone repeal bill, which I’m confident would pass the House, but I’m not confident that it would pass in the Senate.

And given that we’re in an election year, and the nature of the work in Congress — we like to focus primarily on policy and what makes good, we also know that the politics in an election year is electoral politics, play a role. So my sense is that I know I will work with my colleagues to get it back into the Defense Authorization Act this year. And I think we can be successful on that, but it may suffer the same fate that it did last year. And I do think that working through the NDAA is the best way to do it, but doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m any more optimistic.

We need a president — you don’t need to have a president of the LGBTQ community, right? You need you need a good Democratic president … And I love Pete. He’s my guy. But I’m proud to say that every one of our Democratic candidates as president would work with like-minded people in Congress, so that we can finally, once and for all, repeal the ban on transgender Americans serving in our military, codify it as law and let’s be done with it…But I’m excited about Pete’s candidacy and I’m very confident a Pete Buttigieg presidency would repeal the ban on transgender service members.

Blade: I guess I should also ask you a question about impeachment because it’s really a hot topic in the news right now. How confident are you about a fair trial in the Senate?

Brown: Not at all. At the very outset, Mitch McConnell said, “There’s no daylight between me and the White House.” And that’s the way he conducted himself from day one. And so this is a trial that’s going to be shaped — It’s going to be influenced more by Donald Trump’s desires than any pursuit of fairness, on behalf of the American people so I’m not confident whatsoever.

I’m not in front of the TV today. My understanding is that there is there is an effort to amend the rules so that at least the record from the House can be incorporated into the record of the Senate. That’s a modest step forward.

If the American public can’t hear from more witnesses and more evidence, particularly in light of what we have seen, and discovered since the House acted, I think that certainly would be a grave injustice to the American people, the American people deserve to hear from Bolton, Mulvaney and others, and certainly should have access to the document that has come to light that was not available to the House.

I’m not particularly confident that there will be a fair trial because I don’t think that Mitch McConnell, or the White House are particularly interested in a fair, open, transparent process.

Blade: And do you think President Trump will be removed from office?

Brown: I think the prerequisite for that is a fair trial because I think if senators are unwilling — this is a Republican-controlled Senate. If they’re unwilling to have a fair trial, then for me, it’s not a leap to conclude that the prejudged and pre-determined outcome will be in favor of the president.

Blade: My final question for you is the Iowa caucuses are going to be Feb. 3. Where will you be that night and what are your expectations?

Brown: I know I’ll be in Iowa leading up to the caucuses…so there’s a good chance that I’ll be there. But I know, certainly the weekend leading up to the contest, I’m in Iowa, because we want to have all hands on deck.

I am forecasting a very strong night for Pete Buttigieg, Team Pete. I’m predicting a very, very strong night.

Blade: Is he gonna win?

Brown: Absolutely.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length.

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