Campaigns

K Street gets behind Mayor Pete Buttigieg

In contrast to some 2020 rivals, Indiana mayor takes a tamer tone on anti-lobbyist rhetoric

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has struck a tamer tone on anti-lobbyist rhetoric compared to some of his rivals for the 2020 Democratic nomination. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

A collection of prominent K Street insiders has jumped behind the Pete Buttigieg campaign, helping the South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s bid in the Democratic 2020 presidential contest with fundraising and strategy.

It’s striking that longtime federal lobbyists, policy strategists and message makers are gravitating to the D.C. outsider’s campaign given the long list of sitting lawmakers who are also running. K Street denizens, though they often bring with them the baggage of working on behalf of corporate interests, offer campaigns a network of donors and fundraising expertise as well as policy chops and sway on Capitol Hill.

Many of Buttigieg’s K Street boosters are openly gay like the candidate himself. The Indiana mayor, in contrast to some of his competitors such as Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, also takes a tamer tone when it comes to anti-lobbyist rhetoric and allows donations from registered lobbyists.

At least seven of the sitting lawmakers who are running for the Democratic nomination have banned contributions from federally registered lobbyists; those include Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

K Street insiders who support Buttigieg say the 37-year-old candidate has inspired them to get off the sidelines of the primary.

“If you look at Mayor Pete, he’s standing there, sleeves rolled up, at his 12th event of the day, but he’s still super energized — it’s hard not to be impressed,” said Alex Slater, founder of the Clyde Group, a D.C. public relations firm. “For the D.C. strategist-lobbying class, it’s not uncommon to sit the primary out, so I think it’s very notable that many people are getting on board so early.”

Slater, who is not a registered lobbyist and helped raise money for President Barack Obama, has signed on to the Buttigieg campaign’s investment circle, a term for Buttigieg bundlers.

He first saw Buttigieg while attending in person a CNN town hall at the technology conference and festival South By Southwest, in Austin, Texas. “I actually didn’t even go for him, but he caught my imagination,” Slater said.

Buttigieg has caught the eyes of others nationwide. Recent polls have put him as high as third place behind Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not yet entered the race. Two Buttigieg campaign officials did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Slater, along with Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf of Subject Matter and others, is helping organize a D.C. fundraiser May 21 for the campaign.

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John Michael Gonzalez, a lobbyist with the firm Peck Madigan Jones, said he first got to know Buttigieg a couple of years ago through the organization NewDEAL (Developing Exceptional American Leaders).

“His story of who he is really speaks to me,” said Gonzalez, who is gay. But that’s not all, he added.

“It is my hope that one of the reasons he’s sparking so much interest is the tone that he’s bringing to this campaign,” Gonzalez said. “I’m hoping that the other candidates will emulate that — kind, civil, aspirational.”

Gonzalez, a former chief of staff on Capitol Hill, said many of his colleagues downtown are choosing to stay out of the primary race altogether. Many likely would get behind Biden, who may announce as soon as this month whether he plans to run.

As for the May 21 event, Gonzalez said it doesn’t have to mean a lifetime commitment: “I’m asking people to go on a first date. I’m not asking you to get married to him.”

Another co-host of the May 21 fundraiser is David H. Reid, a senior policy adviser at the lobbying and law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. He served as Washington, D.C., finance director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and has been involved in Democratic fundraising efforts for years, including for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Reid had planned to stay neutral during the primary, but Buttigieg’s message and story convinced him otherwise.

“It really was inspiring to see what it is he brought to the conversation: how thoughtful he is in the agenda he is laying out but also his approach,” Reid said. “It is a breath of fresh air to many. … He brings to the conversation a level of civility, respect and truly thought-out policy positions that I think folks will really start to gravitate toward, and I wanted to make sure that part of the conversation is heard.”

Unlike the sitting lawmakers, Buttigieg doesn’t have to prove himself a D.C. outsider, and Reid said that manifests itself, among other ways, in his willingness to hear from all stakeholders, including even those who operate on K Street.

“He wants to hear from and listen to anybody and everybody,” Reid said. “I think that speaks volumes to his overall approach. When you write a certain group off or feel as though you have to shun one group over another, I think that ends up doing a disservice to the work you’re trying to do.”

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