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Buttigieg mayoral decision shadows presidential run

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Karen DePaepe had been waiting all day for a call back from Pete Buttigieg.

It was March 2012, and the 30-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had just decided to replace the city’s first African American police chief over complaints that he illegally wiretapped police officers’ phone calls.

DePaepe, who oversaw the department’s phone system, had called the mayor to try to talk him out of removing the popular chief. She wanted to tell him the situation was not that simple.

It was DePaepe who discovered a mistakenly recorded phone line, and, she says, heard white police officers making racist comments. She said in an interview with The Associated Press that she reported what she heard to the chief, and the recording continued.

Buttigieg — who’s now competing for the Democratic nomination for president — never called her back. When DePaepe’s phone finally rang, she says, it was the young mayor’s chief of staff, who told her she, too, had to go. Federal prosecutors, he told her, had suggested that she and the chief could be indicted if they weren’t removed.

DePaepe hung up, crying and in disbelief. She called one of the prosecutors, who she says told her she was not in trouble and should not quit.

“Who do I believe? I’m being told two different stories,” DePaepe recalled thinking, adding, “Someone is lying to me.”

Buttigieg’s demotion of Chief Darryl Boykins and firing of DePaepe has shadowed his presidential campaign, giving rise to complaints he has a blind spot on race and raising questions about whether he can attract the support of African Americans who are crucial to earning the Democratic nomination. It’s also reinforcing skepticism that the 37-year-old former mayor has the wisdom or experience to handle the demands of the Oval Office.

Black Lives Matter activists have been protesting at his campaign events in recent days, spurred in part by his handling of the case.

Buttigieg has defended his actions, saying he was responding to a “thinly veiled” message from federal prosecutors.

In his telling, he saved two people from criminal charges and took the political heat for getting rid of a well-liked chief.

But interviews with more than 20 people with direct or indirect knowledge of the events, along with a review of documents and contemporaneous news reports, paint a more complicated picture that is not as flattering to Buttigieg. While some said they believed the young mayor was trying to do the right thing, others told the AP that his lack of experience led him to take actions that weren’t well thought out, and that his explanations don’t ring true. His subsequent failure to include African American people in positions of power further damaged his standing in the community.

“It left a really, really bad taste in my mouth,” said Pastor Wendy Fultz, who is black and a leader of the local chapter of the activist group Faith In Indiana.