LGBTQ group accuses Bloomberg official of homophobic remarks

The campaign official said he’d been trying to diffuse someone else’s “inappropriate joke," which appeared to reference Pete Buttigieg's sexuality.
Image: Democratic Presidential Candidate Mike Bloomberg Campaigns Ahead Of Super Tuesday
Campaign buttons for Mike Bloomberg are seen during his campaign rally held at the Minglewood Hall on Feb. 28, 2020 in Memphis, Tenn.Joe Raedle / Getty Images
By Josh Lederman

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — An LGBTQ political group backing Pete Buttigieg for president accused an official with Mike Bloomberg’s campaign of homophobia on Friday and demanded an apology from the campaign for comments in an article that appeared to refer to Buttigieg’s sexuality.

The Bloomberg campaign official, North Carolina State Director James Mitchell, said he’d been trying to diffuse someone else’s “inappropriate” joke but acknowledged he should have been “stronger” in pushing back on the remarks.

The comments, which came to light as Bloomberg was campaigning in Tennessee on Friday, were published in an article in the political blog Gen about the former New York mayor's North Carolina campaign operation. In the article, the author says Buttigieg’s sexuality came up “quite often” during the author’s visit to the campaign’s Charlotte headquarters.

Mitchell is quoted in the Gen story as referring to Buttigieg as “Butti-jay” during a gathering of African American pastors at the headquarters. Mitchell then, amid "laughter in the room," gestured toward a pastor, Dwayne Walker, and said the nickname was a cleaned-up version of one used by the religious leader, according to the article.

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect openly LGBTQ politicians, alleged Thursday that that was a reference to the nickname “Butti-gay.”

In the article, Walker went on to say of Buttigieg’s same-sex marriage: “I don’t think I’m comfortable with the husband.”

“I don’t think I’m comfortable with that. It’s going to take me a minute to wrap my head around that,” Walker, who does not work for the Bloomberg campaign, is quoted as saying.

There’s no indication in the article that Mitchell stepped in to take issue with those comments, although the article says Walker ultimately made clear he believes “people are free in terms of who they love.”

The LGBTQ Victory Fund's president, Annise Parker, the openly gay former mayor of Houston, described it as a continuation of a pattern of insensitive remarks about LGBTQ people by Bloomberg and those around him. On Thursday, Bloomberg apologized for calling transgender women last year “it” and “some guy wearing a dress.”

“For his team to be untroubled by name-calling based in homophobia, and then to repeat it in Bloomberg headquarters to potential supporters, is a blatant appeal to prejudice,” Parker said. “It is unacceptable and the Bloomberg campaign must apologize.”

The Buttigieg campaign declined to comment.

But Mitchell, the Bloomberg official in North Carolina, said he should have been “stronger” in responding to Walker’s remarks.

“Someone made an inappropriate joke. I tried to diffuse it at the time,” Mitchell said in a statement relayed to NBC News by the Bloomberg campaign. “I wish I had been stronger in my response."

Bloomberg was an early supporter of gay marriage and has frequently touted his support for LGBTQ rights on the presidential campaign trail. In a CNN town hall on Wednesday, he told the story of lobbying members of the Republican-controlled New York Senate during his time as mayor to allow gay marriage licenses in New York City.

“I convinced them to vote for gay marriage,” Bloomberg said. “I’m a believer that it’s none of the business who you love, who you want to marry or whatever. You should be free to do that.”

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Priscilla Thompson, Maura Barrett and Julia Jester contributed.