Pete Buttigieg may have a bundler blunder on his hands.
As the Democratic primary’s battle for financial transparency rages on, one of the South Bend mayor’s top bundlers—tasked with helping him collect enough contributions to compete robustly in the nominating contest—previously urged the federal government to offer cash handouts to predominantly red-state Americans to lose massive amounts of weight.
That proposed incentive, detailed in a 279-word blog post, was titled “Cash for Fatties.”
“The government should institute a program in which people are paid to lose weight,” Wendy Wanderman, a top Buttigieg bundler and entertainment executive who specializes in film marketing and production, wrote on HuffPost’s website in 2009. “You can only register for this program if it is determined that you are heavily overweight. If you enroll in a weight loss program like Weight Watchers, (the gov’t will pay for it whether you have health insurance or not) and lose a significant amount of weight, the gov’t will pay you a fee. If you keep the weight off after 6 months or a year, the gov’t will give you an additional payment,” she wrote.
Wanderman, who also served on former President Barack Obama’s National Finance Committee, raised at least $25,000 for Buttigieg’s 2020 bid, according to figures released by the campaign. She was one of 146 top bundlers in a list posted on his website earlier this month.
But her post from a decade ago could raise fresh questions about judgment for Buttigieg, who himself hails from politically conservative Indiana, with what some red-state Democrats and Republicans are contending is insensitive language and a tone-deaf message for a campaign built around an ideal of “unity” heading into 2020.
In the column, Wanderman specifically called out “Republican red states” that have higher populations of overweight individuals, linking to a 2009 report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the country’s obesity rates.
“We’ve seen the success of the Cash for Clunkers program. I’d like to see the administration go forward with a program called Cash for Fatties,” Wanderman wrote, referencing a federal program that provided financial incentives for residents to purchase fuel-efficient cars while trading in less-efficient models.
“In the Top 10 ranking of most overweight states, only Michigan (ranked 8) and Ohio (tied for 10th) are the only blue states among a field of red,” she wrote. According to the report, Mississippi had the highest rate of adult obesity, totaling 32.5 percent. Four states had rates above 30 percent, including Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, and Tennessee.
Richard Ojeda, a progressive Democrat from Republican-friendly West Virginia, argued the post projects a classist sentiment.
“This attacks the poor,” Ojeda, who briefly launched a longshot Democratic presidential campaign, told The Daily Beast when asked broadly about the post. “Sadly, it’s cheaper to eat unhealthy in McDonald’s than it is to eat healthy. I come from a poverty-stricken area and know this is how people survive.”
Wanderman’s argument is based on the premise that people in “thinner and mostly bluer states” are paying for the healthcare costs of “all of the uninsured and Medicare covered individuals in these red states,” and that politically left-leaning areas are picking up the tab for more conservative parts of the country.
“The blue states in which we want a public option, are paying the costs of the red states where they oppose it,” she wrote, before proposing her cash-based solution.
When presented with the blog post, one top strategist with ties to a prominent Republican senator said: “I’m offended by the stupidity of the idea, as if cash incentives alone would be enough to cure the nation’s obesity crisis.”
But the source also offered a potential bright spot for Buttigieg.
“This isn’t Pete’s fault. He should take her money for his campaign before she wastes any more of it promoting her own bad ideas. I can’t see ‘cash for fatties’ anywhere in his health care plan,” the strategist said in a text.
One influential Democratic operative based in a ruby red state wasn’t as optimistic.
“I definitely think it’s offensive,” the well-placed source said. “Can we blame Pete for someone who’s associated with him? Yes and no. But as we enter into 2020 where everything matters, we have to elevate the importance of words mattering even more, especially words that can be viewed as insensitive to certain constituencies.”
The 37-year-old mayor’s campaign has built a months-long messaging effort around his ability to unify different parts of the country, including those in politically diverse, Republican areas. On the trail, Buttigieg wades into conservative, often rural areas. He’s appeared on Fox News multiple times.
“We need Democrats who’ve been with us all along. We need Independents worried about the direction of our country. We need Republicans disgusted with their own party. We won’t all agree on everything but we’ll need each other—I will welcome anybody who is ready to help,” Buttigieg wrote on Twitter last week.
The Indiana Democrat is the only top-tier candidate from a deep red state. (In 2016, President Donald Trump won the election in Indiana with 56 percent of the vote, where Vice President Mike Pence served as governor.) He is one of two candidates relying on high-dollar fundraisers like Wanderman to bring in cash for his campaign. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has for weeks prodded Buttigieg in all-but-name on the trail, and has made his financial ties a center point of her offensive strategy, often campaigning around the message that she doesn’t do big-ticket fundraisers.
Buttigieg’s campaign declined to comment on the record for this story. But it’s not the first time his bundlers have gotten him into hot water. An Axios report last week revealed an email sent by campaign fundraiser H.K. Park offering what appeared to be influence for cash. “If you want to get on the campaign's radar now before he is flooded with donations after winning Iowa and New Hampshire, you can use the link below for donations,” Park wrote. (The campaign told the outlet it did not authorize the email). In addition, a report in The Intercept noted that although Buttigieg’s “Medicare for All Who Want It” health care proposal pledges to ban the predatory practice of “balance billing”—where patients are slammed with high bills for receiving out of network care without knowing—billionaire Hamilton James, the executive vice chairman of Blackstone and a top Buttigieg fundraiser, has been linked to deceptive billing practice schemes, the report indicates. His campaign also previously omitted over 20 high-level fundraisers from the initial list they released in the spirit of increased transparency.