Updated at 1:09 p.m.
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is returning campaign contributions from a former Chicago city attorney who led a vigorous effort to block the release of a video depicting the shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teenager whose death at the hands of police stirred months of protest and resulted in an officer’s conviction.
Buttigieg is also removing Steve Patton as a sponsor of a Chicago fundraiser that will be held Friday, his campaign said. The move comes after The Associated Press reported on the event Friday morning and Buttigieg faced fierce online backlash.
“Transparency and justice for Laquan McDonald is more important than a campaign contribution,” spokesman Chris Meagher said in a statement. “We are returning the money he contributed to the campaign and the money he has collected. He is no longer a co-host for the event and will not be attending.”
Buttigieg’s campaign had previously declined to comment on Patton’s involvement in the fundraiser. Patton led Chicago’s law department under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
For months, Buttigieg has faced criticism over his handling of race as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city with a history of segregation where decades of simmering tension erupted this summer when a white police officer shot and killed an African American man. Despite Buttigieg’s promises to “do better,” his handling of the fundraiser demonstrates his sometimes awkward efforts to improve his standing in the black community, which is a crucial segment of the Democratic electorate.
“He should adjust his schedule,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said when asked about the fundraiser earlier this week and before Buttigieg’s campaign decided to cut ties with Patton.
The Chicago civil rights icon, whose guidance Buttigieg sought amid the unrest over the South Bend police shooting, said he has a high opinion of the White House hopeful and was “assuming” Buttigieg didn’t know about Patton’s ties to the McDonald case. But he added Buttigieg “should be made aware.”
Buttigieg’s campaign took action only after the swell of backlash.
Even before the South Bend shooting this summer, Buttigieg has struggled to address his record on race as mayor. Critics, including many residents, have blasted him for firing the city’s first black police chief shortly after taking office, for prioritizing South Bend’s downtown over its neighborhoods and for issues of housing, crime and inequality.
Patton did not respond to multiple requests for comment and his role in raising money for Buttigieg isn’t entirely clear. He gave a maximum $5,600 donation in June. And the Buttigieg campaign’s statement on Friday indicates Patton tapped his own personal network to “bundle” contributions from others. But while Meagher, the campaign spokesman, said that money will be returned, he did not say how much Patton raised, or how long he had been active as a bundler.
McDonald’s death in October 2014, as well as efforts by police to cover-up the incident, roiled the city as attention to the case grew.
Police said at the time that McDonald was armed with a knife and “lunged” at officers. But the video, which was released over a year later after a judge’s order, showed the teenager veering away when officer Jason Van Dyke fired sixteen shots at him. The knife he had was a pocket knife.
Van Dyke was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison and three other officers faced trial for a cover-up, though they were acquitted.
Patton faced criticism over his handling of the matter, which imperiled Emanuel’s administration and drew an all-hands-on deck response from the then-mayor’s top aides. He advised against releasing the video until after an investigation was concluded — and Emanuel survived a contentious mayoral runoff reelection. Emails released by the city show he was involved in managing the fallout as media interest grew and coordinated statements with the city’s purportedly independent police oversight board.
One of Patton’s top deputies attempted to get McDonald’s family to agree to not release the footage during settlement talks, which the city entered into without the family filing suit. Patton also played a role in negotiating a $5 million sum that was far less than what McDonald’s family asked for.
The law department he oversaw was found to have withheld evidence during discovery in a more than a half-dozen of police misconduct cases.
Activists say Buttigieg’s handling of the matter is his latest misstep. Over the summer, he held a fundraiser in Chicago’s historically black Bronzeville neighborhood at a center named for Harold Washington, its first black mayor, which drew a mostly white audience.
“The worst case scenario is his people know and they just don’t care, or they don’t know and haven’t vetted him thoroughly,” said Charlene Carruthers, former head of Black Lives Matter group BYP100, which was instrumental in pushing for police reforms in the wake of the McDonald case.
“If they do know, it’s indicative of so much of what we see with folks in the LGBTQ community — particularly white men who may hold a sexual identity, but their politics don’t line up with the liberation of the people who are also in community with them.”