FRESNO, Calif. — Pete Buttigieg distanced himself Monday from Democrats who pushed former Sen. Al Franken to resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct, in an implicit critique of his primary competitor, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
Asked in an MSNBC "Hardball" town hall by host Chris Matthews whether Franken should have been forced out, Buttigieg initially said it was Franken's decision to make. The former comedian and Minnesota senator announced in 2017 that he would resign after coming under pressure to step down from female Democratic senators that were led largely by Gillibrand.
"I think it was his decision to make, but I think the way we basically held him to a higher standard than the GOP does their people has been used against us," Buttigieg said. Pressed again on whether Democrats should have pushed for his ouster, Buttigieg didn't mention Gillibrand by name but added: "I would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more."
Years later, the rapid charge for Franken's ouster has raised difficult questions about whether Democrats are too quick to rush to judgment when misconduct allegations arise, particularly after another 2020 Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, faced accusations earlier this year of unwanted touching of women.
Buttigieg's argument that calls for Franken's resignation were premature also puts him at odds with many of his other 2020 competitors who were in the Senate at the time. Although Gillibrand vocally led the charge, Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Michael Bennet all quickly followed suit by saying at the time that Franken should step down.
In a statement Monday night, Gillibrand stood by her position.
"Eight credible allegations of sexual harassment, two since he was elected Senator, and one from a congressional staffer. That is not too high a standard, regardless of how the Republican party handles this behavior, and worse. Yes, it was Senator Franken's decision alone to leave the Senate — a path he ultimately chose — bur for many senators, including myself and others in this primary filed, that was not too high a bar to raise our voices and make clear we value women," Gillibrand said in a statement.
The MSNBC town hall in Fresno, California, took place as Democrats on the campaign trail and in Congress continue to wrestle with whether their party should start impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump in the House, a fraught decision with both political and moral ramifications.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Buttigieg said he'd vote to impeach Trump if he were a member of Congress and impeachment were brought up for a vote, adding that the president "deserves to be impeached."
He was pressed by an audience member on whether he supports House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's take-it-slow approach to considering impeachment proceedings, which has irked many liberal Democrats but that party leaders believe is politically prudent.
Buttigieg has generally supported a cautious approach while saying that since he's not in the House, it would be improper for him to tell Congress what to do.
But if he were in Congress, Buttigieg said on Monday, his vote on impeachment would be a yes.
"Yeah, I would," Buttigieg said in response to Matthews' follow up question.
Still, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor argued that a rush to begin impeachment proceedings while Democrats in Congress still have more witnesses they want to interview and more investigative steps to take could be ill-advised.
"It better be an airtight process," Buttigieg said at the town hall. "There may be some strategic wisdom in following that sequence. I'll leave that to Congress."
By deferring to Congress on whether impeachment proceedings should begin now, Buttigieg is still stopping just short of positions staked out by many of his 2020 primary rivals. Booker and Harris have both argued impeachment proceedings against the president should begin immediately.
During the town hall at California State University-Fresno, Buttigieg also defended his support for a national gun registry, a position first announced on his campaign website last month and one that puts him to the left of many other Democratic presidential contenders.
"If you have to have a license to have a car, it doesn't seem that unreasonable that for deadly weaponry we would do the same," Buttigieg said. "Most Americans are fine by this."
But pressed by Matthews on how he would go about registering the hundreds of millions of guns already in the U.S., Buttigieg expressed new flexibility in his position, suggesting he would be willing to accept a plan that initially grandfathered in guns already sold. He also said that it could be left to states, not Washington, to register guns as long as they meet a national standard.
"Let's at least get it right going forward," Buttigieg said. "We can start on a go-forward basis. At a minimum, if we're not doing it at point of sale, we can begin."
In Fresno, a central California community that's home to a larger percentage of Republicans compared with the larger cities in the state, people began showing up to the auditorium around 8 a.m. in hopes of getting in to see Buttigieg. One couple told NBC News they had driven in from San Jose three hours away and begged for tickets.
Buttigieg's husband, Chasten Glezman, sat in the front row as the South Bend mayor took questions from an audience that frequently applauded the candidate enthusiastically.
Buttigieg also addressed a host of other issues, saying he was opposed to right to work laws that prohibit requiring workers to join a union, calling it "a bad idea" that he said has contributed to Indiana's economic problems. And Buttigieg said he was opposed to a national military draft, but supports expanding national service programs.
He voiced opposition to the death penalty, as well as opposition to letting felons currently serving prison sentences vote, as Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for. Still, Buttigieg said he supported restoring voting rights as soon as those are incarcerated finish their terms.