Sunday night, Pete Buttigieg became the first Democratic presidential candidate competitive in national polls to visit Rhode Island since the race ramped up this year, speaking to hundreds at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Providence.
At the event, which was closed to the media, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, offered a message of unity — stressing the importance of healing the wounds of a divided nation and the responsibility of local politicians to drive politics on a national scale, according to Phillip Yang ’21. A South Bend native who interned in Buttigieg’s mayoral office over the summer and attended the Sunday event, Yang is now a co-chair of Bruno for Pete, a collective of University students supporting Buttigieg that is currently seeking recognition from Undergraduate Council of Students as an official student group.
Buttigieg’s campaign provided 200 free tickets to the event for University students, according to Josh Neronha ’22, Bruno for Pete’s other co-chair. For the general public, ticket prices for the self-described “grassroots fundraiser” began at $15 for students and extended to $500 each at the “champion” level. All tickets were sold out prior to the event, according to the campaign’s website. Pete for America had originally provisioned 25 complimentary tickets for University students, but after Bruno for Pete reported that over 200 students had indicated interest in attending the event, the campaign expanded their offerings dramatically, Neronha said.
At 37, Buttigieg is the youngest candidate vying to be the Democratic nominee. Positioning himself as a bridge between liberal rivals Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and moderates like former Vice President Joe Biden, he has rooted his campaign in the notion of generational change. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week demonstrated Buttigieg to be a top contender for the nomination. The survey put Biden at 28 percent, Warren at 23 percent, Sanders at 17 percent and Buttigieg at 9 percent. No other candidate broke 2 percent.
Buttigieg, who counts Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and City Council President Sabina Matos among his supporters in Providence City Hall, has been a formidable fundraiser in the Ocean State. As of Sept. 30, he had pulled in $85,000 from R.I. donors — more than any other presidential candidate, according to public data from the Federal Elections Commission. Warren and Sanders were the next-best Rhode Island fundraisers, while the other Democratic hopefuls, including Andrew Yang ’96, continue to lag far behind.
Sunday’s event followed a private reception held at Nick’s on Westminster. Among the guests at the reception were Congressman David Cicilline ’83 (D-RI) and Elorza, WPRI reported.
The Nick’s on Westminster fundraiser drew sharp criticism from members of the Providence Democratic Socialists of America, who stressed that the restaurant’s owner, Paolino Properties, is managed by former Providence Mayor Joseph Paolino Jr., who has already donated the maximum individual contribution amount of $2,800 to the Buttigieg campaign.
“There are no violations of campaign finance laws,” Paolino told Uprise RI when asked to comment on the allegations. “Any expenses that are incurred will be reimbursed by the campaign.” The Buttigieg campaign could not be reached for comment before press time.
A candidate determined to reach young voters, Buttigieg has considerable support on campus. In The Herald’s fall poll, Buttigieg emerged as the fifth most popular candidate among University undergraduates, with 7 percent indicating that they would vote for him if the 2020 primary were held today.
“The biggest priority has to be beating Donald Trump,” Neronha told The Herald of his attitude toward the 2020 presidential election. “The Democrats can’t elect someone that will alienate moderates,” he continued.
At the event, Phillip Yang facilitated the question-and-answer portion of the event. “It was a surreal moment,” he said of being on stage with Buttigieg in front of a packed crowd. “I couldn’t help but think: ‘This could be the next President of the United States.’”
Buttigieg’s visit to Rhode Island follows an unveiling of plans Friday for how his administration will strive to improve college affordability for working and middle-class families. The outlined details included a promise that public college students would attend college for free if their families earn less than $100,000 per year, the Washington Post reported.
Buttigieg’s approach to affordable college tuition is distinct from policies supported by Warren and Sanders, who both advocate for free tuition for any student who attends a public college, regardless of family income.
The 2020 Rhode Island Democratic primary is scheduled to take place on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.