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As Race Tightens, Bernie Sanders Attacks Pete Buttigieg’s Billionaire Donor Connections

4 minute read

After an effective tie in Iowa and heading into a nail-biter of a New Hampshire primary, Senator Bernie Sanders went on the offensive Friday against his closest rival in the race, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg.

In an address to the Politics & Eggs breakfast—a New Hampshire tradition for visiting presidential candidates—Sanders criticized Buttigieg by name and questioned why he was taking money from large donors.

“I’m reading some headlines from newspapers about Pete Buttigieg,” he said. “Pete Buttigieg has most exclusive billionaire donors of any Democrats, that was from Forbes. The Hill: Pete Buttigieg tops billionaire donor list. Fortune: Pete Buttigieg takes lead as big business candidate in 2020 field. Washington Post: Pete Buttigieg lures even closer look from Wall Street donors following strong Iowa caucus performance. Forbes magazine: here are the billionaires backing Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.”

“I like Pete Buttigieg, nice guy,” he added. “But we are in a moment where billionaires control not only our economy but our political life.”

The Buttigieg campaign declined to comment, but pointed towards the former mayor’s recent public comments.

“There are so many issues and areas from climate to gun violence to economics where Americans want something, and Washington cannot deliver, that if you got to pick one thing to fix, it’s politics,” Buttigieg said at last night’s CNN town hall, in response to a question about his top priority as president. “It’s Washington, and there are concrete things we can do about it. Getting money out of politics.”

Buttigieg added that he supported democracy reforms similar to the H.R.1 bill currently languishing in the Senate.

On the Late Show with Stephen Colbert last night, Buttigieg also defended his fundraising: “I’m not a fan of the campaign finance system we have today. I’m also a fan of beating Donald Trump,” he said.

“If somebody can give up to the legal limit, which is $2,800, and they’re willing to do that to support my vision for moving this country forward, then I really think they should help get this done,” he added. “And I will make exactly one promise to anybody, whether they’re giving three bucks online or the maximum allowable by law, and the promise is I’m going to take that contribution and I’m going to use it to build the campaign that’s going to defeat Donald Trump so that we can actually get the reforms that this country needs.”

Sanders also criticized former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, although not by name. “We got a former Mayor of New York city, who has a record, every reason in the world he’s entitled to run for President. No problem with that. Smart guy,” he said. “But he is spending hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the election. There is something wrong with that.”

The newly aggressive posture comes just after Buttigieg and Sanders finished within a percentage point of each other in Monday’s muddled and chaotic Iowa caucus. The results confirmed Sanders’s status as the progressive frontrunner, and gave Buttigieg a significant boost as the new leader in the moderate lane. By Friday, Buttigieg was just a point behind Sanders in the latest New Hampshire poll, well within the margin of error.

At a campaign stop in St. Anselm college in Manchester, Sanders took questions after his speech. When a student asked for a specific example of how he’d adjusted his position based on what he’d heard on the road, Sanders described his evolution of understanding racial justice.

“I’ll tell you, one of the things that I have learned going around the country—Vermont and New Hampshire are primarily white states, that’s the fact,” he said. “But if you go to states in the South, you go to California, you go to Nevada, you hear different things. I could not fully appreciate until I ran for President, to be honest with you, how corrupt and racist our criminal justice system is.”

“I did not know, and I’m a little embarrassed to tell you this, because maybe many of you knew it, maybe some of you don’t, that today in America, as we speak, in this moment, there are 400,000 people behind bars, right now, who have not been convicted of anything,” he continued.

“I didn’t know that. I did not know the toll that the so-called war on drugs has done to families, primarily African-American, Latino, and Native Americans.”

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Write to Charlotte Alter / Manchester, N.H. at charlotte.alter@time.com