The Dallas Examiner
Prominent Democratic donors, citizens, attorneys, elected officials and members of the judiciary gathered at the Hilton Anatole May 3 for the annual Johnson Jordan Dinner sponsored by the Dallas County Democratic Party. Pete Buttigieg was the keynote speaker, replacing Kamala Harris who was originally slated for the job but cancelled due to scheduling conflicts.
Buttigieg, a 37-year-old Navy veteran currently serving his eighth and final year as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is the first openly gay candidate to make a serious bid for the presidency. As such, he’s been no stranger to controversy on the campaign trail.
The presence of protest was palpable at the event. Anti-gay and anti-abortion demonstrators stood outside the hotel as guests arrived, one dressed as Jesus holding a large cross, and others waving signs with graphic images of aborted fetuses.
For the past two months, Randall Terry, an increasingly recognizable anti-abortion agitator, and a handful of his associates have been following Buttigieg across the country as he campaigns for president. In April, they reportedly disrupted every Buttigieg event in Iowa. Not only did the group stalk him to Dallas, they also booked rooms at the Hilton Anatole the night prior to the dinner, according to a video on Terry’s YouTube channel.
Additionally, over 200 people gathered at Fair Park Bible Fellowship May 2 to plan the protest and disruption of Buttigieg’s Friday night appearance, as stated in a press release on Christian Newswire.
While protesters held signs outside, VIP donors inside the hotel drank and mingled on the lobby level before heading upstairs to the Imperial Ballroom. Ticket holders were offered a three-course dinner.
Full table reservations cost anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000, while individual tickets were sold for $150 each. Big donors were able to request their first, second and third choices for which elected official they would like seated at their table.
Rev. Eric Folkerth of Woods United Methodist Church opened with a prayer, asking God to bless Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Glezman, and to give people the courage to confront racism, sexism and homophobia.
The host for the evening, Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Carol Donovan, informed everyone that nearly 700 guests were in attendance, breaking last year’s record when Cory Booker brought in about 500.
Donovan then presented awards to several Democratic politicians and volunteers who have positively impacted Dallas, including District Attorney John Creuzot, who received the “Elected Official of the Year Award.” The Carter High School swim team was also brought on stage and acknowledged for their recent accomplishment in becoming District 15-5A champions.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings accepted the accolade of “Outstanding Mayor of the Year” before introducing Buttigieg.
“This guy is young and smart. This guy’s father was an immigrant. He speaks seven languages; I can order the cheese enchilada at El Fenix. He’s a Rhodes Scholar; I am not. He was a naval lieutenant serving in Afghanistan, got the Joint Service Commendation medal. This is an amazing fighting man; I was in Boy Scouts and got first class,” Rawlings joked. “He is a uniter. It gives me hope for the future of the United States of America.”
Buttigieg took the stage to loud applause, greeting the crowd in both English and Spanish.
“I’m particularly pleased to be among fellow red-state Democrats,” he commiserated. “I’m someone who’s trying to remind everybody that there’s more to Indiana than our vice president. And you know that there’s a lot more to the state of Texas than what you might see in the political commentary that sometimes comes our way.”
Less than six minutes into his speech, he was interrupted by the first organized protester, who yelled out, “Repent thy sins!” and “Marriage is between a man and a woman!” The man was quickly escorted out of the room by event staff.
After supportive applause from the audience, Buttigieg continued addressing his platform of “Freedom, Security and Democracy,” three words he says he wants to reclaim from the GOP. By reframing progressive arguments in the language of conservative values, Buttigieg hopes to win over many of the disaffected voters who backed Trump in 2016.
As he was describing different ways in which people can be made unfree, the second protester sounded off, this time about abortion, repeatedly shouting, “What about the babies?” As the audience attempted to drown out the woman with chants of “Pete, Pete, Pete!” she was shown out. Event organizers said she didn’t have a ticket.
“Lively room tonight,” Buttigieg remarked. “As I was saying, you’re not free if you can’t start a small business because you’re afraid that when you leave your job, you lose your health care. That’s freedom too. The freedom to organize for a good day’s pay for a good day’s work, that’s freedom. If there is a veil of mistrust between your family or neighborhood of color and your police department, you’re not free.”
After ignoring the first two protesters, Buttigieg directly responded to the third protester’s chants of “Repent! Repent! Repent!” with a Bible verse of his own. “I’m just thinking of that scripture that says, ‘Bless and do not curse.’”
Before the audience applause could die down, a fourth heckler, Terry’s partner-in-protest, Gary Boisclair, cried out, “Abortion is murder!” and “Remember Sodom and Gomorrah!”
“We love you, Pete!” the crowd cheered.
Buttigieg used this tense moment to transition to his second theme of the night. “Ok, let’s talk about security real quick. Let’s talk about cyber security. Let’s talk about election security. Let’s talk about security in the face of rising violence of white nationalism before it gets any worse. And let’s talk about climate security,” he said.
Finally, on the issue of democracy, Buttigieg proposed expanding voting rights, adding more seats to the Supreme Court and scrapping the Electoral College.
“Freedom, security and democracy – I know with a message like that, we can reach people who may have had a hard time hearing us.”
Shortly after, the fifth and final protester of the coordinated disruption yelled, “God will send a judgment on you because men don’t have sex with men!” and “You can’t kill babies!”
In what would be the biggest applause line of the night, Buttigieg recounted “that moment when I was packing my bags for Afghanistan for the purpose of defending that gentleman’s freedom of speech. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I believe it’s the time our president was focused on season seven of The Celebrity Apprentice.”
At the after-party for the event, “JJ After Dark,” hosted by the Dallas County Young Democrats, politically active attendees shared why it was important for them to be at the dinner, and what they felt about Buttigieg’s message.
While some people thought the protesters “ruined the night,” others saw the spectacle as an effective foil for Buttigieg’s character and moral courage.
“I was very impressed overall with what he said,” Emma Niewald, a Democratic activist from Irving, shared. “I was especially impressed with the way that he reacted to the hecklers. His response was so dignified, and I feel like that’s the kind of leader that we need. I loved when he said, ‘I was packing my bag to go to Afghanistan to give that man the right to free speech.’ I thought that was really profound. Someone who can deal with stuff like that will be a good leader.”
Jeffry Faircloth, board secretary of Tarrant County Stonewall Democrats of Fort Worth, expressed his appreciation for the representation that Buttigieg offers in the presidential race.
“As a member of the LGBT community, I have to show support for the person who is advancing our cause. He’s putting a face on what it means to be an LGBT person,” Faircloth remarked. “You can be a gay person, you can be a lesbian person, you can be a transgender person, and that is not going to foreclose your possibilities, even being a candidate for president of the United States.”
Another attendee, who wished to remain anonymous, was also encouraged by Buttigieg’s appearance in Dallas.
“For me, as a straight Black man, to hear a married, gay presidential candidate, I love it,” he voiced. “I really want people to be able to be who they are, their authentic self. It feels good. For a Black man, for that man to be accepted, that speaks to me.”
Buttigieg is currently polling fourth among Democratic voters with 10% of the vote in the most recent Quinnipiac poll, behind Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.