Wine caves and billionaires: Buttigieg under fire over fundraising at Democratic debate

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Rising Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg came under attack during a debate among U.S. presidential hopefuls on Thursday, as his rivals questioned his lack of Washington experience and criticized his fundraising from wealthy donors.

Senator Elizabeth Warren criticizes South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (L) during the sixth 2020 U.S. Democratic presidential candidates campaign debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, U.S., December 19, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

During the sixth and last debate of the year for Democratic candidates seeking their party’s nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in the November 2020 election, an intensifying feud between leading contenders Buttigieg and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren over transparency and fundraising burst to the surface.

The exchanges underlined the increasing stakes in the Democratic race seven weeks before the first contest in the state-by-state nominating process in Iowa on Feb. 3. Opinion polls show the race up for grabs, with Buttigieg taking the lead in Iowa and former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and Warren fighting for the top in national polls.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, lagging the frontrunners and pinning hopes on a strong showing in Iowa to propel her candidacy, also took a shot at the experience of Buttigieg, 37, comparing her accomplishments in the Senate to his public record.

Warren questioned whether Buttigieg, mayor of the Indiana city of South Bend, was beholden to his big-money donors and described his ritzy, closed-door fundraiser in a wine cave in California. In a shot at Buttigieg, Warren said she did not sell access to her time or “spend time with millionaires or billionaires.”

“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the president of the United States,” said the Massachusetts senator, who does not hold big-ticket fundraisers and has focused her campaign on fighting corruption and corporate greed.

“This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass,” Buttigieg shot back at Warren, who has a net worth in the millions of dollars, noting he was the only candidate on the stage who was not a millionaire or billionaire.

“Your net worth is 100 times mine. We need the support form everybody who is committed to helping us beat Donald Trump, Buttigieg said.

Klobuchar, meanwhile, noted his failure to win statewide election in Indiana.

“Try building a coalition to win re-election with 80% of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana,” Buttigieg said, referring to the U.S. vice president, who previously served as governor of Indiana and is an opponent of gay rights.

‘MOCKERY AT COCKTAIL PARTY’

The debate came one day after Trump’s impeachment in the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives, and the candidates promised to make the case to a divided American public that Trump’s impeachment was necessary. They said his leadership had diminished the country’s stature and respect abroad.

“It’s not only in the Middle East we see the consequences of the disappearance of U.S. leadership,” Buttigieg said, noting Trump was ridiculed behind his back at a recent gathering of world leaders. “It’s not just the mockery at a cocktail party. … It’s the looks on the faces.”

In a historic vote, the House impeached Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress arising from his request that Ukraine investigate Biden and Biden’s son Hunter, who had joined the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was U.S. vice president.

Klobuchar said she wanted to hear testimony from top White House aides at the Republican president’s trial due next month in the Republican-led Senate, which will determine whether Trump is removed from office.

“If President Trump thinks he should not be impeached, he should be not scared to put forward his own witnesses,” Klobuchar said. “The president is not king in America. The law is king.”

The candidates acknowledged that the American public is split over impeachment, with Republicans largely opposing it and Democrats favoring it. But they said it is a fundamental question of right and wrong. The candidates said they would try to convince the public of Trump’s unsuitability for the office.

“We have to prosecute the case against him, and that means we need a candidate for president who can draw the sharpest distinction,” said Warren, who will serve as a juror in the Senate trial.

Sanders, another of the jurors, said the United States “cannot have a president with that temperament who is dishonoring the presidency of the United States.”

With deep and widening partisan divisions in the United States, Biden made the case for the importance of Democrats being able to work with Republicans.

“I refuse to accept the notion – as some on this stage do – that we can never never get to a place where we have cooperation again. If that’s the case, we are dead as a country,” Biden said.

“If anyone has reason to be angry with the Republicans and not want to cooperate it’s me,” Biden added. “They have attacked me and my son and my family. I have no love. But the fact is, we have to be able to get things done.”

Slideshow (17 Images) 

The debate’s timing – coming a week before the holidays and amid the impeachment fireworks in Washington – could reduce the audience and the benefits for the Democrats as they seek a boost ahead of the voting in Iowa.

In a party that prides itself on its diversity, the debate lineup has been criticized for being nearly all-white – Asian-American entrepreneur Andrew Yang is the only minority candidate to qualify.

“It’s both an honor and a disappointment to be the only candidate of color on the stage,” Yang said.

Reporting by Ginger Gibson and Tim Reid; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Will Dunham

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