/‘The epitome of privilege’: Booker supporters seethe over Buttigieg mania

‘The epitome of privilege’: Booker supporters seethe over Buttigieg mania

Sen. Cory Booker

Frustrated allies of Sen. Cory Booker are questioning whether the media is giving the New Jersey Democrat a fair shot. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

2020 Elections

The two presidential contenders boast some of the same credentials. So why is Mayor Pete getting all the attention?

One of the Democrats running for president is a youthful former Rhodes Scholar who speaks more than one language and cut his teeth as a two-term mayor. The other is Pete Buttigieg.

Buttigieg’s sparkling résumé has been the subject of countless profiles, powering the South Bend mayor to the top tier of the 2020 field. Sen. Cory Booker, however, hasn’t received nearly as much attention and remains mired in the middle of the pack in recent polls.

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The similarities between their credentials — and the disparity between how their campaigns have been covered on the campaign trail — are frustrating Booker allies who question whether the media is giving the New Jersey senator a fair shot.

“He’s at a disadvantage anytime he’s not treated on the same playing level as all the other candidates,” said South Carolina state Rep. John King, who has endorsed Booker. “There should be a campaign where people start to question the process when there’s not fairness — and especially within the media.”

Some see echoes of 2016, when Donald Trump’s media dominance drowned out his Republican rivals en route to securing the GOP presidential nomination and later the White House.

In recent weeks, Buttigieg has been profiled, among other places, in Time magazine, New York magazine and Vogue, and his husband, Chasten, was the subject of a feature story in The Washington Post. Even his communications adviser was the focus of a POLITICO magazine story.

“I guess I’m a little gun-shy because I remember what happened four years ago when all of the attention was based on this guy from New York who happened to be a billionaire by the name of Donald Trump,” said state Rep. Jerry Govan, a senior legislator who serves as chairman of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus.

“Nobody controls who the media covers but the media,” he continued. “It’s important for them to get it right this time. If folks got a good message, that message deserves to be covered. I think the American people deserve the opportunity to hear the truth, to have a clear understanding of where people stand on the issues that they care about, and the media’s the only entity that can do that, and that’s its job.”

Other Democrats see Buttigieg’s rise as a reflection of entrenched racial and gender biases — that the Buttigieg bump would be impossible if he wasn’t a white man.

“What I hear from people is that they see the epitome of privilege,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based strategist, who also credits the South Bend mayor for being an excellent communicator.

The frustration is closer to the surface in South Carolina, where African Americans cast roughly 60 percent of Democratic primary votes in 2016 and where Booker has been a frequent presence.

“I think Cory is just as accomplished,” said a senior Democrat in South Carolina, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the subject. “And I’ve heard grumblings from a number of people [who have asked], ‘Why hasn’t he gotten that type of exposure?’”

Spokespersons for the Booker and Buttigieg campaigns declined to comment for this story.

As a mayor of a relatively modest-sized city, Buttigieg is something of a novelty in the race compared with Booker, who is one of seven sitting senators in the field. There’s a sense among some within Booker’s campaign that he’d generate more buzz if he were running for president as the mayor of Newark, his old job, rather than as a senator from New Jersey.

But it’s not as though Booker is a boring, standard-issue politician. He’s one of three African Americans in the Senate. He’s a former Stanford college football player who is dating actress Rosario Dawson. The 2005 “Street Fight” documentary chronicling Booker’s mayoral campaign against incumbent Sharpe James was nominated for an Academy Award, and news of his rescue of a neighbor from her burning home was picked up nationally when it happened in 2012.

Booker, in fact, has had a national profile for much longer than Buttigieg, who has run unsuccessful races for Indiana state treasurer and Democratic National Committee chairman.

“Pete Buttigieg, despite his staff’s good press work, doesn’t have that remarkable a story,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

She pointed to Booker and Julián Castro, the former Obama Cabinet secretary and San Antonio mayor, as better alternatives for voters who want a candidate with mayoral experience.

“Sen. Booker and Secretary Castro would both be historic presidents and have both presented clearer policy visions than Mayor Pete,” Rocketto said.

A state legislator who declined to be identified because he’s aligned with a different 2020 campaign speculated that Buttigieg’s success in attracting media attention is more about the historic nature of his campaign than anything else.

“He would become the first openly gay person to become president of the United States. That’s big, especially in this era,” the lawmaker said. “Sen. Booker, we’ve seen that before. Even though he’s got his qualifications, we’ve seen black men that have run for president. We’ve seen a black man that’s already been elected as president. And so, it wouldn’t be unsurprising that he wouldn’t generate the same kind of momentum.”

State Rep. JA Moore, who co-chairs California Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign in South Carolina, says part of the problem is that, as someone long considered to be a rising Democratic star, Booker’s narrative is a familiar one in the party — while Buttigieg’s is not.

“The unfortunate truth for Cory is that his story was told from a national perspective back in 2012 and 2010 and 2008. So it’s difficult to retell your story on a national level again,” said Moore. “Mayor Pete’s story from a national perspective is just now being told.”

Moore said he likes Booker and still keeps in contact with him. But “his story isn’t fresh anymore,” he said. “Once you’ve heard it 16 or 20 times or more in the past over 10 years now, that’s difficult to be the fresh media darling when people already know you.”

Alex Thompson contributed to this report.

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