Pete Buttigieg’s McKinsey problem, explained

Pete Buttigieg’s rise in the polls has been accompanied by increased scrutiny on his work at consultancy McKinsey and his campaign’s high-dollar fundraisers. And he doesn’t have many good answers on either front.

Buttigieg has been a bit of a surprise breakout in the 2020 Democratic primary. He’s 37, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and while his background is certainly interesting — he’s a veteran, went to some fancy educational institutions, is America’s first openly gay presidential candidate, and, like Sen. Cory Booker, is a Rhodes scholar — he isn’t exactly brimming with political or policy experience on the national stage. But he’s polling in fourth place nationally and has gained ground in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Big donors appear to like him, and he’s shifted toward the center as the primary has gone on, apparently seeing an opening for his candidacy in a more moderate lane occupied by Vice President Joe Biden.

As with any rising political candidate, Buttigieg is under the microscope, and his critics and opponents are poking holes. Two main points of focus in recent weeks have been what exactly he did for the nearly three years he was at McKinsey and what’s going on with his fundraising.

Buttigieg worked at McKinsey, a global consultancy firm with annual revenues of over $10 billion, from 2007 to 2010, but what exactly he did while there is not really known. Being a management consultant isn’t always the most exciting stuff, but given the secretive and sometimes ethically questionable nature of McKinsey’s work — just last week, ProPublica and the New York Times published a report detailing the company’s work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on detaining and deporting immigrants — many people are pressing Buttigieg for details on what exactly he did when he worked there.

Voters are also taking notice. At a Buttigieg house party in Concord, New Hampshire, on Friday morning, one voter asked the candidate to tell the crowd about his work at McKinsey, and joked “you can tell us, because you’ve been holding back.”

“What I did at McKinsey was consult for clients, my specialties included grocery pricing, and part of it is publicly available because I worked on a project to fight climate change that included energy efficiency,” Buttigieg responded. But he added that he could not discuss a portion of his work due to a nondisclosure agreement.

“The bind on me right now is I believe in keeping your word, and I signed a legal document about client names. I have been calling on McKinsey to release me from that so that client list can go out,” he said, adding, “now, it’s not like I was running the place … but I think the American people deserve to know.”

On Friday evening, amid mounting pressure to provide more details about his McKinsey work, Buttigieg released a statement reiterating the limits of the NDA, that provided some information about his work (though vague and incomplete).

“The bulk of my work on these teams consisted of doing mathematical analysis, conducting research, and preparing presentations. I never worked on a project inconsistent with my values, and if asked to do so, I would have left the firm rather than participate,” he wrote. He then listed various project descriptions “to the best of my recollection” and again asked McKinsey to release him from the agreement.

The mayor has also been pretty quiet about what’s going on with his fundraising. Many of his big fundraising events are closed to the press, and while at the start of the year he put out a list of a handful of bundlers (backers who solicit big donations from other potential donors), it hasn’t been updated since April. Candidates aren’t required to publicly disclose their bundlers, but many have, at least to a certain extent, in the past, including George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain.

Buttigieg was asked about his fundraising as well, including from big corporations, on Friday in New Hampshire. He pointed out that he doesn’t take any corporate PAC money and said that he has hundreds of thousands of individual donors, though he didn’t dig into the details on the big-dollar donations. “I don’t know most of them, I don’t know what most of them think about most things, but this is a grassroots-powered campaign,” he said. Buttigieg added that whoever the donor, whether of five dollars or at a private event, “they do get a promise from me in return, and my promise is I will take that contribution and use it to beat Donald Trump.”

On the whole, the Buttigieg camp has largely avoided fully answering questions on McKinsey and on his fundraising. He insists that he can’t talk about McKinsey because of a nondisclosure agreement, which, if he broke, would open him up to lawsuits from the firm or former clients. And on the donors, his campaign has deflected and pointed to the records of other candidates they believe merit examination.

On their face, neither of these issues is necessarily a dealbreaker for many Democratic voters. However, given Buttigieg’s path to national renown and the case that he’s always been part of an elite class, not being able to speak more openly about his ties to powerful organizations and donors is problematic. That’s especially the case given that the Democratic base is increasingly skeptical, if not outright adversarial, toward the wealthy and privileged class in the United States.

It’s not like Pete Buttigieg was CEO of McKinsey, but it would probably be good if he said what he did

After graduating from Harvard and Oxford, Buttigieg went to work at McKinsey from 2007 and was there for about three years until he quit in 2010. While on the campaign trail, he often highlights a lot of parts of his bio, but this isn’t one of them.

Michael Forsythe at the New York Times recently laid out some of the basic things we know about Buttigieg’s time at the firm, including that he spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan for his job and that in his autobiography he says he also worked on “energy efficiency research” for unnamed clients. McKinsey told the Times Buttigieg worked with “several different clients” at the firm but wouldn’t specify the work.

In his book, Buttigieg talks some about his time at McKinsey, jokingly noting that during his time there he became an expert in Canadian grocery pricing and discussing his decision to leave the firm after realizing he didn’t care about the work. “No matter how much I liked my clients and my colleagues, delivering for them could not furnish that deep level of purpose that I craved,” he wrote.

Buttigieg has time and time again insisted that because of the NDA he signed, he can’t talk about it either. On Friday, he said in a radio interview that he was “calling on McKinsey” to release the information about his work. “I’m happy to speak to it when it does,” he said. Of course, chances are McKinsey isn’t champing at the bit to release information about much of anything.

Despite the excuses, the pressure on Buttigieg continues to build. On Thursday, the New York Times editorial board called for him to give voters “a more complete account of his time at the company” and declared his silence on the issue an “untenable” situation. The board noted that President Donald Trump has been extremely secretive about his own business dealings, and Buttigieg, running as an alternative to him, should do better. He also has a short résumé, so three years is a lot. “He must find a way to give voters a more complete accounting of his time at the company,” the Times wrote.

Others have joined the chorus in calling for Buttigieg to be more forthcoming about his work.

To be sure, it’s possible that Buttigieg’s work at McKinsey was innocuous and boring — consulting work is often a lot of PowerPoint presentations and long meetings. And it’s not as though he was a top decision-maker at the firm. Moreover, consultancy firms such as McKinsey do have some pretty tight protocols around confidentiality. A spokesman for the campaign said Buttigieg is “eager to share more” and has asked McKinsey to be released from the NDA in full and to release a list of clients. “To date, they have not agreed,” he said.

The campaign also pointed out that Buttigieg has criticized McKinsey since leaving it. He told CNN in November that the company has made a lot of “poor choices” in recent years and called its work with ICE “disgusting.”

But Buttigieg is running for the highest office in the land, and hiding behind an NDA isn’t really cutting it with his critics. The progressive wing of the Democratic party, and many people in America at large, are highly suspicious of the work done by firms such as McKinsey, which is currently facing a criminal investigation for its advising in bankruptcy cases.

The McKinsey scrutiny plays into broader questions about Buttigieg’s coziness to power

Among the 2020 Democratic field, Buttigieg has become pretty popular with big donors — something that’s not lost on his progressive competitors and critics who have worked hard to move the party away from moneyed interests.

On Thursday, Elizabeth Warren responded to a reporter’s question about Buttigieg’s work at McKinsey by pivoting to his fundraising. “It is even more important that candidates expose possible conflicts of interest right now,” Warren said. “And that means, for example, that the mayor should be releasing who’s on his finance committee, who are the bundlers who are raising big money for him, who he’s given titles to and made promises to.”

Warren and Bernie Sanders have eschewed big donations and private fundraisers, instead relying on small-dollar donations to fuel their campaigns. Biden is doing big fundraisers, but he’s letting the press in.

Lis Smith, a senior adviser to Buttigieg, pushed back on Warren’s critique and the broader criticism of the opaque nature of the candidate’s fundraising on Twitter. Warren has released 10 years of tax returns dating back to 2008, but Smith called for her to release returns from before then, including during her time as a corporate lawyer. Warren’s campaign has already put out a list of her previous clients, and she has spent years fighting against powerful interests.

Buttigieg’s campaign declined to comment on his fundraising and the identities of his bundlers.

As primary season approaches and Buttigieg’s profile rises, he’s going to get more questions, not fewer — on McKinsey, on his donors, on his handling of race, and more. And his campaign is going to have to get better at answering them. In Buttigieg’s case specifically, there’s not some long record he can point to that might show what he may or may not do as president. We have to look at what he has done in whatever capacity, and then we have to take him at his word, and it’s a word that sometimes changes. Case in point: he used to be for Medicare-for-all, and now he’s critical of it.

The left especially right now is highly skeptical of corporate power and moneyed interests, and hiding behind an NDA and trying to call attention to other candidates is not the way to put those people at ease. Democrats want politicians who are less beholden to corporate interests and who don’t feel like they owe favors to donors, not the other way around. That’s where the concerns about Buttigieg and his caginess come from.

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