South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is taking aim at tuition-free public college plans proposed by two of his rival Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“I believe we should move to make college affordable for everybody,” he said in a campaign ad that debuted in Iowa this week. “There’s some voices saying, ‘Well, that doesn’t count unless you go even further, unless it’s free, even for the kids of millionaires.’ But I only want to make promises that we can keep.”
Buttigieg did not name either senator, but it was clear the criticism was directed at their platforms.
The 30-second spot spurred backlash on Twitter, where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has publicly endorsed Sanders, called Buttigieg’s remarks “a GOP talking point.”
“Just like rich kids can attend public school, they should be able to attend tuition-free public college,” she said Thursday.
Buttigieg’s senior communications adviser, Lis Smith, appeared to respond to widespread rebukes of the ad, saying Friday that the candidate “won’t ask Americans who don’t go to college to subsidize it for the children of millionaires and billionaires.”
Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for the Justice Democrats, a federal political action committee that recruited Ocasio-Cortez and supported her run for office, slammed Smith’s response as “a bad faith argument.”
As Shahid pointed out, Buttigieg’s college affordability plan only gives significant assistance to families making less than $100,000 a year ― not millionaires or billionaires.
Echoing scrutiny of Buttigieg’s remarks, Rebecca Katz, founder of New Deal Strategies, a progressive political consulting firm, pointed to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-K program as evidence that such initiatives are effective when they involve everyone.
“Gets everyone invested in its success,” she tweeted.
Reached by HuffPost for comment, Buttigieg’s rapid response communications director Sean Savett pointed to a tweet he wrote on Friday morning.
“Pete would make public college tuition-free for 80% of families,” Savett’s post read. “And he’d provide tuition assistance for the next 10% of families. But some say he’s not progressive because he won’t make college free for millionaires + billionaires who already have advantages?”
Asked why the debate was being framed around the ultrarich even though Buttigieg’s plan does not come close to including wealthy individuals, Savett did not provide a direct response, but emphasized the scope of the plan’s coverage, noting that “we’re talking about 90% of families off the bat.”