NEW YORK -- Facing intense pressure to answer questions about his work in the private sector, Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday disclosed a roster of former consulting clients that include a major health insurance provider, a nationwide electronics retailer, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Department of Defense.
He also opened a big-dollar fundraiser for the first time to the media, a change of heart he later admitted “took a little getting used to” but was “the right thing to do.”
Buttigieg's campaign released the details while the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, attended an evening fundraiser on Park Avenue in Manhattan. It was the first event on a five-day fundraising swing that features 10 meetings with big donors, and the first time he allowed the media to cover fundraising events that had previously been kept secret.
Speaking on MSNBC later Tuesday night, Buttigieg said that the decision to open his fundraisers — which he had previously resisted — took some “getting used to because traditionally campaigns haven't generally done this." Former Vice President Joe Biden has opened his fundraisers to the press, while neither Sens. Elizabeth Warren nor Bernie Sanders holds big-dollar fundraisers.
Buttigieg added: "I think it makes sense. We're talking a lot about transparency in this campaign. We've got a president who’s moved in the exact wrong direction in terms of transparency."
Walking into his Tuesday night fundraiser, Buttigieg told The Associated Press he's "seeking to live out the values of transparency that we talk about, and given that we have a White House that has so moved radically in the opposite direction.”
His work history, never before revealed, features a detailed list of the clients he worked for when he was an associate at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. between 2007 and 2010, his first job after graduating from Oxford. In a press release announcing the disclosure, Buttigieg downplayed his role in the firm, saying he had released details of his work there “even though it was my first job out of school where I had little decision making authority.” On MSNBC, Buttigieg downplayed the McKinsey work, saying that there's “nothing particularly sizzling about the clients I released.”
His campaign said Buttigieg’s work included trips to Iraq and Afghanistan during a three-month project in 2009 for the U.S. Department of Defense. That project, he said, was focused on “increasing employment and entrepreneurship.”
He also worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, where the campaign said he “looked at overhead expenditures such as rent, utilities, and company travel.” That work, his first assignment at McKinsey, did not involve policies, premiums or benefits, according to his campaign.
Still, Buttigieg argued on MSNBC that his time working on the Blue Cross project gave him a “sense of what that world is like" and helped influence his “Medicare for All Who Want It” healthcare plan, which would offer Americans a government-run health care option while preserving private insurance.
His time at Blue Cross Blue Shield, Buttigieg said, is “one of the reasons why I believe that with a public alternative, we can deliver something that will out-compete all the private plans out there. I’m just not willing to assume that on behalf of individuals before they have the choice to put it to the test.”
Helen Stojic, a spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, said in a statement to the AP that “for a brief time” the candidate was “part of a larger McKinsey team we engaged back in 2007 to consult with our company during a corporate-wide reorganization.”
"He was not involved as a leader on that team, but rather as part of the larger consultant group," Stojic said.
Blue Cross announced it would cut up to 1,000 jobs in January 2009, and it's not immediately clear whether that happened as part of the same reorganization they refer to in the statement. When asked on MSNBC if his work with McKinsey contributed to those layoffs, Buttigieg said, “I doubt it,” and pivoted to attacking his opponents — Sanders and Warren, though he didn't reference them by name — who would eliminate private insurance outright, thereby costing health insurance industry jobs.
Speaking to donors at the fundraiser, Buttigieg delivered much of his standard stump, making the case for his candidacy.
He demurred when a questioner asked if President Donald Trump's attacks on Biden and his son were hurting him. Buttigieg said voters “have kind of decided what they think about that already” and said he doesn’t hear much about it on the trail in Iowa.
Buttigieg did, however, acknowledge his biggest challenge remains building “a broad coalition,” referencing his efforts to reach out to black voters. Polling has shown they are still broadly unfamiliar with the mayor.
He also dismissed Trump’s reelection campaign as asking voters to “tolerate the chaos, tolerate the division, tolerate the bad example for your children, and in return for that I will give you job growth almost as good as you had in the Obama years.” He argued that Democrats should now “own the issue of fiscal responsibility” in the face of a Republican president who has had the deficit balloon on his watch.
Protesters outside his Tuesday fundraiser on Manhattan's Upper East Side seemed more bothered by Buttigieg's association with wealthy donors than his work history.
Progressive activist Alice Nascimento led chants of “Wall Street Pete” from the sidewalk outside the event.
“He's hanging out with millionaires!” she charged. “He's not for working people.”
While he is still unknown by many voters nationally, Buttigieg has emerged as one of his party's most successful fundraisers this year — collecting more than $50 million so far in 2019 — in part by tapping the resources of big donors. That's set him apart from Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have rejected traditional fundraising techniques in favor of small dollar donations.
Buttigieg resisted opening his fundraisers to public scrutiny for much of the year, but that position became untenable as his campaign moved into the top tier of the Democratic primary.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is the only other current Democratic candidate who regularly opens his fundraisers to a pool of reporters. Warren only does fundraisers for the Democratic Party and says she'll only do those if they are open to the media. Sanders holds what his campaign calls "grassroots" fundraisers that are meant to prioritize even small donors and have generally been open to the press or livestreamed.
Buttigieg was under significant pressure to release details about his work for the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm. The company said Monday that it would allow Buttigieg to identify the clients he served more than a decade ago.
Buttigieg told The Atlantic on Tuesday he was moved off the assignment at Blue Cross after three months in 2007, long before the nonprofit slashed hundreds of jobs. The campaign said he also worked for the Canadian supermarket chain Loblaw’s in Toronto on pricing; worked for the retail chain Best Buy on a project about energy-efficient products; and researched energy efficiency for several utilities, government agencies and nonprofits.
His final project was one to look for new revenue for the U.S. Postal Service in 2010, he said.
One of the donors who attended Tuesday's fundraiser, Henry Lowenstein, shrugged off questions about Buttigieg's work history.
“There’s not a candidate that doesn’t have baggage," he said. "This is the smartest guy who has a grasp of every issue, but unlike Elizabeth Warren doesn’t have a plan for every issue. He’s the real deal.”
Smith reported from Providence, R.I. Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report from Washington.