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Washington — Progressive activists around the country are mobilizing to halt the momentum of Pete Buttigieg, whom they increasingly view as a formidable threat to win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Top liberal leaders from multiple organizations are independently crafting strategies that center around three prongs: a heightened focus on Buttigieg’s checkered record on race in South Bend, Ind., his little-known work at the McKinsey consulting firm and an argument that his tempered policy proposals align with the wishes of large corporations.

The escalation of attacks against Buttigieg comes not only as he emerges as a next-generation alternative to moderate Joe Biden, but also as he shows signs of undercutting a progressive’s path to victory in the 2020 primary.

“My expectation is that as he gets more scrutiny, he’ll come down. He has liabilities as a candidate,” said Joe Dinkin, the campaign director for the Working Families Party, which endorsed Elizabeth Warren in September. “I think Pete is not going to hold up well to the scrutiny.”

Warren allies see Buttigieg’s ascent as coming at the expense of the Massachusetts senator, whose position in the race has declined over the last month as white college-educated Democrats have shifted their allegiance to the 37-year-old mayor. They believe Buttigieg’s attacks on “Medicare for All” helped resurrect some voters’ anguish about Warren’s electability.

“When she became the front-runner, Pete started using insurance industry talking points attacking her on Medicare for All,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has also endorsed Warren. “For a while, he was doing a character attack on Warren, calling her dishonest about raising taxes. He was calling her a lying woman. That is exactly what (President Donald) Trump will do in a general election. He’s now creating TV moments that Trump will use in TV ads in a general election against her. That’s nasty.”

Bernie Sanders’ campaign has already signaled it will target Buttigieg’s college affordability plan for lacking universality by failing to cover wealthy families. On a conference call this week, Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver dubbed Buttigieg’s attitude “elitist” and framed the coming choice for primary voters as “not moderate vs. liberal,” but “progressive vs corporate.”

At the same time, supporters of Sanders are intensifying their focus on Buttigieg. Our Revolution, the Sanders-inspired progressive nonprofit, held a rally on Saturday in South Bend to highlight criminal justice, police brutality and housing problems in Buttigieg’s hometown.

Jorden Giger, an Our Revolution member from South Bend who was scheduled to speak at the event, said Buttigieg’s explanation for failing to diversify the city’s police force — “I couldn’t get it done,” he admitted during June’s debate — remains unsatisfactory.

“It’s poor leadership,” Giger said. “He has to own responsibility for that.”

The Buttigieg campaign attempted to head off Saturday’s event with a news conference the Wednesday before showcasing local African American leaders in South Bend who support Buttigieg. But chaos erupted when a member of Black Lives Matter stole the microphone from a speaker, leading one elderly woman in the audience to raise her cane at the protester.

Additionally, progressives are closely monitoring the special prosecutor’s investigation into the fatal police shooting of a black man there last June. A finding in the politically charged case of Eric Logan could be released in February, “which might spell some trouble for Pete Buttigieg, because it’s right when the primary votes,” Giger said.

They also have their eyes on a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Logan’s family against the city, which one progressive operative describes as a “ticking time bomb” for Buttigieg that could explode in the middle of the 2020 campaign.

Aside from his mayorship, Buttigieg’s private sector work for McKinsey & Company, a New York-based management consulting firm, is beginning to attract more scrutiny. After The New York Times reported McKinsey advised ICE on how to cut food and medical supplies for migrants, Buttigieg described it as “disgusting.” He also noted he’d left the firm a decade ago.

But last week, four immigrant rights groups sent Buttigieg a letter demanding he return an estimated $53,000 in donations from McKinsey employees due to the company’s “shocking and appalling evidence of complicity with the Trump administration’s mass deportation efforts.”

Buttigieg has spoken about his work on a grocery pricing project in Canada, but his campaign has said his tenure there is mostly covered by a nondisclosure agreement that McKinsey refuses to void. Activists are planning to apply more pressure on him to be forthcoming about his clients, especially as it relates to his policy priorities as president.

Green likened the lack of transparency to Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns.

“Pete’s authenticity and credibility take a hit when he feigns helplessness on releasing which corporations he worked for McKinsey, releasing tapes showing racism in his South Bend police, and releasing names of his big-money campaign bundlers,” Green said.

“It’ll be a liability,” said Dinkin. “The fact he’s not saying is a little bit telling.”

Buttigieg’s campaign views the attacks as a sign of his rising standing in the primary, and is confident he and his team are prepared to beat them back.

“It’s one of the reasons we’re building up our communications shop,” said a Buttigieg aide, referring to the hires of three additional staffers just this week. “If there was no one going at us, it’d show we’d have a lot more work to do.”

The campaign also appears to be taking steps to prevent potentially negative headlines about ties to big donors. After initially publicly listing its host committee members for fundraisers over the summer, it stopped doing so for finance events in November, according to multiple invitations provided to McClatchy.

Progressives are betting that they can stall Buttigieg’s ascent in a similar way that he stifled Warren’s. Some see him as just a flash in the pan.

“He’s doing a fantastic job building a media campaign,” said Charles Chamberlain, the chair of Democracy for America, which backed Sanders in 2016 but has withheld an endorsement so far this cycle. “What we’re looking at right now is the flavor of the week or the flavor of the month.

“Pete is a good guy who probably has the best interest in America … but we see someone searching for a better job,” Chamberlain added. “First it was DNC chair, now it’s president. It’ll be interesting to see what his next campaign is after he loses this one.”

David Cantanese is a national political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau. 

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