CHICAGO — Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg on Friday accused Vice President Mike Pence of advancing "homophobic policies," saying that while he doesn't know whether Pence is truly homophobic, his policies are "hurting other people" just the same.
"I don't know what's in his heart," Buttigieg told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview airing Friday. But, he added, "if you're in public office and you advance homophobic policies, on some level it doesn't matter whether you do that out of political calculation or whether you do it out of sincere belief."
"The problem is, it's hurting other people," said Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor.
Buttigieg's comments may add further fuel to an emotional dispute that's played out between him and Pence, the former Indiana governor, over LGBT issues. Buttigieg, who is openly gay and married to a man, has invoked Pence's name on the campaign trail to say that if Pence has a problem with his sexuality, his problem "is with my creator." That led Pence to accuse Buttigieg of leveling "attacks on my Christian faith."
The vice president's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Friday about Buttigieg's remarks. But in a Fox News interview earlier in the week, Pence said it was "disappointing" to see both Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden criticizing him on the campaign trail despite having what Pence described as a positive relationship with the Democrats in the past.
"If he wins their party's nomination, we'll have a lot more to say about him," Pence said of Buttigieg.
Those comments came the same week that President Donald Trump, asked about Buttigieg's same-sex marriage, said it was "absolutely fine" and that he had no objection to Buttigieg appearing with his husband on stage at his campaign kickoff.
"I think that's something that perhaps some people will have a problem with. I have no problem with it whatsoever," Trump said.
The dispute between Buttigieg and Pence, who worked together when Pence was Indiana governor, has emerged in the 2020 race as a flashpoint in the broader societal debate about whether support for LGBT rights such as same-sex marriage are compatible with firmly held religious beliefs and support for religious freedom.
Pence has pointed out that he's always treated Buttigieg with respect and has argued that the South Bend mayor is cynically picking a fight with him to raise his political profile.
But Buttigieg has said that what's important is not whether Pence is cordial to gay people but whether the policies he's advocated are harming them. In Indiana, Pence spearheaded a religious freedom law seen as one of the most intolerant toward LGBT people in the nation.
"He's always been polite to me in person," Buttigieg said. "But you look at the fact that he, to this day, cannot bring himself to say that it shouldn't be legal to discriminate against people who are gay."
He added that Pence has also not raised objections to Trump's ban on transgender people serving openly in the military nor reversed his earlier opposition to same-sex marriage or gay people serving openly in the military.
As he works to position himself as a viable primary candidate for president, Buttigieg has faced repeated doubts about his ability to appeal to minorities, amid signs in early voting states such as South Carolina that he has yet to attract support from African Americans in large numbers. Polling has showed that among religious groups, black Protestants are less supportive of same-sex marriage than any other, with only 44 percent of black Protestants and 51 percent of African Americans overall approve of gay marriage, according to the Pew Research Center.
Asked whether Buttigieg believes that African Americans "resent the rather quick assimilation of LGBTQ into the mainstream," Buttigieg demurred.
"I don't know," he said. "You look at the trajectory of equality for LGBT people, and you compare it to the struggle that is going on for black America to this day, and you've got to ask the question how come one moved so quickly, and the other is plodding along generationally at such a slow pace. And as somebody who's part of, you know, a group of people that's been pushed to the side in one way, I think I have that much more responsibility to be there to stand up for people who are on the wrong side of racism."