- The Democratic presidential candidate has a well-documented problem attracting the support of black and Latino voters.
- His uneven record in addressing social-justice issues undermines his credibility, particularly against frontrunner Joe Biden.
- Any effort to expand his base beyond white voters will be necessary to compete in more diverse states like California and Nevada.
- By increasing his name recognition, owning his missteps, challenging the notion that black and Latino communities are homophobic, and talking openly about the plight of minority communities, he has a chance at growing his base.
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As Pete Buttigieg surges in Iowa and New Hampshire, two of the whitest places in the country, it’s hard to ignore that he’s not a frontrunner in racially diverse Nevada and South Carolina, the third and fourth states, respectively, to hold nominating contests. Nationally, he polls at 2% with African Americans and Latinos.
These blocs share a number of the same policy interests, including healthcare, jobs, and the economy, but there are differences, too. Hispanics list immigration as one of their top issues, while African Americans are more likely to express concerns about the criminal-justice system. Both groups, however, worry about racial inequality — a problem that Buttigieg has struggled with over the years.
South Bend’s first black police chief sued the city for discrimination after Buttigieg demoted him in 2012 for his role in wiretaps which caught officers making racist remarks, according to a white city official fired during the ordeal. An urban-renewal project Buttigieg initiated saw the destruction of abandoned and vacant homes in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods.
Even since this summer Buttigieg has found himself embroiled in controversies surrounding his record on race. He clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters. There were allegations of inflated black support for his plan to combat systemic racism.
Some of the criticism, Buttigieg’s supporters have argued, is unfair. For instance, his detractors accused him of equating being a gay man to being black, a comparison he never directly made. His allies have also accused the media of focusing on the racial tensions in South Bend at the expense of his efforts to fight inequality. Even the idea that Buttigieg struggles to gain traction with voters of color, they say, is unfair: Most of the presidential candidates aren’t earning more than single-digit support from African Americans and Latinos.
If Buttigieg has a “race problem,” it seems much of the Democratic field does, too.
“It hasn’t been perfect … and I recognize there is work to do.”
Shifting the perception that he’s disconnected from minority voters won’t be easy. Activists, politicians, voters, and the mayor himself said he’ll have to own his past missteps while challenging a popular narrative that positions the African-American and LGBTQ communities as adversaries. Along the way, he’ll need to tout his efforts to promote equality and boost his name recognition with voters of color — a group Buttigieg admits doesn’t yet know him well.
“Even now, we know that we’re not as well known as some of my competitors,” he said after being told he had taken the lead in some Iowa polls. “So, it’s very encouraging and, at the same time, there’s a long way to go, and there are a lot of states in this process.”
When we spoke, the mayor wore his usual ensemble: white dress shirt, a blue tie and pants, and brown Oxfords. His fresh haircut and slight build gave him a youthful air. He appeared warmer in person than he does on television. Careful to make eye contact as he spoke, he adopted a humble tone when addressing rival Julián Castro’s concern that the Democratic nominee should be someone who can win support from blacks and Latinos.
During his westward swing, which took him to California and Nevada, Buttigieg spoke to audiences in Spanish. He talked about hate crimes, xenophobia, and what he calls a “crisis of belonging.” He told me that he is devoted to black and brown communities. “It hasn’t been perfect,” he said of his campaign, “and I recognize there is work to do.” He added: “It is most certainly true that to win, and to deserve to win, any candidate for the presidency needs to be speaking with black voters, needs to be speaking to Latino voters, needs to earn that support.”
To help him do so, Buttigieg has diversified his campaign staff — it’s now 40% people of color. He met with civil-rights activists like the Rev. Al Sharpton, Rep. John Lewis, and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, and won endorsements from minority politicians across the country.
“Of course, black lives matter”
“Can you say it to us today in front of all these cameras that black lives matter?”
On June 21, five days after South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O’Neill killed Eric Logan, a 54-year-old black man, protesters demanded that the mayor respond to their question.
A husband and father of seven, Logan died after O’Neill stopped him on suspicion of burglary in the parking lot of a South Bend apartment complex. The officer claimed he shot the suspect for wielding a knife, but his body camera had been off during the incident, angering activists and community members.
Outcry over the killing prompted Buttigieg to leave the campaign trail and return to South Bend, where he briefly met with the Logan family. A crowd of protestors awaited him in front of police headquarters with signs stating: “Who do you call when police murder” and “Black Lives Matter.”
As the demonstrators shrieked their complaints to him, Buttigieg appeared shocked, concerned, and frustrated.
“Did you just ask me if black lives matter?” he asked the activists.
“Yes, we want to hear you say it!” a woman screamed back.
“Of course, black lives matter,” he said.
South Bend is 26.4% African American and 14.4% Hispanic. Buttigieg has been a popular enough politician to win re-election there, but his relationship with the black community has, at times, been strained.
A major rupture occurred in 2012, with the demotion of former Police Chief Darryl Boykins, the first and only African American to serve in the role. After Boykins’s departure, the percentage of black officers on the police force dropped from 10% to 5% from 2014 to 2018. Buttigieg acknowledges the lack of diversity in the police force has been a failure of his tenure, admitting that he “couldn’t get it done.”
The aftermath of Eric Logan’s killing endangered any gains Buttigieg made with South Bend’s black community. In his encounter with the Black Lives Matter activists this summer, he told the crowd he “did not have evidence” that officers in the police department had been disciplined for racist behavior, which only heightened their anger.
In one widely reported exchange, a protester asked him how he expected African Americans to support his candidacy if he didn’t take action on Logan’s killing.
According to a number of reports, Buttigieg told the woman he wasn’t asking for her vote, a response that drew criticism. But his full response was more nuanced: “I’m not asking for your vote. I will promise that there will be a review to make sure that there is no racism on this department and that it will be independent.”
Buttigieg’s remarks crystalized one of his campaign’s biggest challenges: A desire to please all parties — an approach that often winds up leaving no one satisfied.
Soon after he met with protestors, the South Bend Fraternal Order of Police slammed his handling of the incident, calling one of his statements after the shooting — “All police work and all American life takes place in the shadow of racism” — divisive.
Progressives also criticized the mayor’s response. As he stumbled through the crisis, he seemed to lack the innate ability “to navigate … a situation that calls for humanity and an open ear and awareness of systemic racism,” Natalia Salgado, chief of civic engagement for the Center of Popular Democracy, said.
The confrontational posture the episode demanded doesn’t come easy for a candidate inclined towards comity and unity building.
“In our community, we like people to tell the truth,” Brandon Neal, a senior adviser to Buttigieg, told me. Neal, who is black, added: “One of the things the mayor has been applauded on is the fact that he did tell the truth and said he made a mistake, and there are things, looking back on it, he could’ve done better. I think that’s within itself a quality of a leader and a quality of a person that’s trustworthy.”
“They’re trying to say black people or minority people don’t care for gays, and I know for a fact that’s not true.”
In November, Buttigieg stepped onto the ballroom stage of Las Vegas’s Bellagio Hotel, the site of the Democratic Party’s “First in the West” event. There, he told the diverse crowd that the US is facing “a crisis of belonging” and he’s the antidote to “divider-in-chief” Donald Trump.
“Americans are told in so many ways, for so many reasons, that you don’t belong, that you don’t fit …. I want every American to know, regardless of where you come from or the language you speak at home, where your parents came from, you belong,” Buttigieg said. “No matter who you love or who you worship, you belong.”
As a Christian, an immigrant’s son, and a gay man, Buttigieg has said that his overlapping identities have always made him feel marginalized. Outsiders like him, he said, will be welcome in his United States.
Some voters have speculated about whether Buttigieg can deliver on that message. Among them is Mujahid Ramadan, the former CEO of the nonprofit Nevada Partners in North Las Vegas, a historically black city roughly eight miles from the pomp of the Bellagio Hotel. In this community, residents share many problems with South Bend’s low-income communities, such as a persistent racial wealth gap
“He’ll be able to see the populations of color and how they’re affected by systemic racism because he’s affected by a similar ‘ism,’ as in homophobia,” Ramadan said of Buttigieg. “Now, is he going to be courageous enough to take that step and make that an inclusive part of his campaign?”
Although Buttigieg has not explicitly compared sexual orientation with race during his presidential run, he has been criticized for drawing a parallel between his journey as a gay man and the experiences of people of color.
“My commitment as somebody who has seen my own rights up for debate and benefitted from the advocacy of people not at all like me is to make sure I’m doing everything I can, given my background and frankly the privileges that I carry, for others,” Buttigieg told me.
When the mayor made nearly identical remarks during the Nov. 20 presidential debate, Sen. Kamala Harris — who has since dropped out of the race — suggested they were “just not productive” and “a bit naive.” Rev. Sharpton, who has not endorsed any candidate in the race, avoided taking sides on the matter, telling the Washington Post both that Harris “had a point” and that Buttigieg had been misunderstood.
“It’s always tricky to compare marginalizations … because when things are different there’s an assumption that one must be bigger, greater, or more important than another,” Ron Buckmire, a black former-LGBTQ activist and an associate dean at Occidental College, told me. “But that reasoning leads you straight to the ‘Oppression Olympics’ where no one is the winner. I do think that a gay white man is more likely to be able to empathize with a black man or Latinx woman than a straight white man can.”
Media coverage of homophobia among black Americans previously grew out of misleading data following California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure to eliminate same-sex marriage. A similar narrative surrounding Buttigieg’s sexuality and his struggles with black voters has popped up, but some voters are tired of the idea.
Renee Gray, a 56-year-old black Army veteran, said she found the coverage of Buttigieg’s struggles with African-American supporters exasperating.
“They’re trying to say black people or minority people don’t care for gays, and I know for a fact that’s not true. I don’t believe that.”
The subject of black homophobia has made headlines during Buttigieg’s presidential bid, in part, because his campaign hired a consulting firm to conduct focus groups with black voters in South Carolina. Some participants questioned how a young man with no Washington experience could take on the Republicans, while others expressed discomfort with the candidate’s same-sex marriage. When the findings about the focus groups made their way into the news media — thanks, reportedly, to a leak from operatives for the Buttigieg campaign — a spate of stories about black homophobia followed.
“I can’t imagine any reason why our team would have leaked that, and I stand by the fact that the assertation is just really insulting,” Lauren Brown, the candidate’s South Carolina spokesperson, told me. “It’s unfortunate because I think there’s a lot of voters in the state that believe in the inclusivity that we’re promoting on this campaign.”
“Anyone trying to capture the Latino vote should be speaking authentically to the voters”
At the Nov. 17 “Democratic Presidential Forum on Latino Issues” at California State University, Los Angeles, Buttigieg was joined by Sanders, Harris, Castro, and billionaire Tom Steyer. The presidential hopefuls fielded questions from local reporters about Latino voters, who are expected to make up the nation’s largest nonwhite voting bloc in 2020.
When Buttigieg took the stage, he received tepid applause. In his first question to the mayor, KABC-TV news anchor Marc Brown made it plain: His frontrunner status meant little to Golden Staters.
“Iowa is not California, [it is] demographically very different from California, arguably very different from much of the Democratic Party,” Brown said. “What are you gonna do to connect with Latino voters here in California?”
Buttigieg began his response by saying that he has connected with some Latino voters already and looked forward to connecting with more, particularly in California.
“Latino voters that I speak to are extremely concerned about healthcare, about the direction of our economy, about immigration policy,” he said, “and about something that’s deeper than any individual policy, the way people are being treated, singled out, and told they do not belong in this country.”
Before he can bond with California’s Hispanic electorate, the mayor will have to make his existence known to many of them. A November Latino Decisions poll found that 49% of likely Hispanic voters in the Golden State have never heard of Buttigieg or have no opinion of him. Only 16% of those surveyed said the same for Biden and Sanders, while 34% said they didn’t know enough about Warren.
But the poll also revealed that protecting immigrant rights is a top concern of the state’s Hispanic electorate — meaning that Buttigieg’s advocacy for undocumented immigrants could give him some cache with Latinos unfamiliar with him.
In 2016, Buttigieg collaborated with a South Bend nonprofit to develop a “Community Resident Card,” a sort of municipal ID for undocumented immigrants to use at city agencies and businesses, including schools, libraries, pharmacies, and banks. Of South Bend’s roughly 4,500 undocumented immigrants, more than 2,000 have reportedly signed up for the card. “[T]hat was one example where we knew we could make a difference and didn’t want to hesitate to act,” Buttigieg told me.
Although immigration policy disproportionately affects Latinos, too often politicians focus solely on that issue, Danny Turkel, a spokesman for the advocacy group Voto Latino, told me.
“Politicians will say, ‘I support a pathway to citizenship,’ and that’s all they have to say to Latino voters,” Turkel said. “It’s a really lazy way of checking the box off. Immigration matters to Latinos, but so many issues matter that are not being addressed.”
Mariela Hernandez, the Latino advocate for the Nevada State Democratic Party, had a slightly different take. “One of the reasons we focus on immigration more than any other issue is because immigration issues do drive Latino voters to the polls. It’s a combination of immigration, plus the economy and healthcare.”
Under Trump, Hispanic engagement in the election process has risen — perhaps an unsurprising outcome for a president who famously kicked off his campaign by describing some immigrants from Mexico as “rapists” and “criminals.”
At Cal State L.A. forum, a moderator asked Buttigieg to discuss Trump’s characterization of DACA recipients as “far from angels.” (DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program started by the federal government in 2012 to offer some undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children permission to work, thereby delaying deportation.)
In response, Buttigieg shook his head and sighed.
“Where do you begin? This is a president who is looking at human beings and not seeing human beings. Last time I checked, the president’s not an angel either,” he quipped, drawing laughter from the audience.
“He has an understanding about our population, so I think that’s really important,” Cal State L.A. senior Mayra Zamora said after the forum.
Prior to the event, Zamora knew little about Buttigieg. But he made a strong impression, particularly when describing the fear Latinos feel in the current political climate.
“The other candidates, they say they understand us, but I think Pete Buttigieg can speak from personal experience, so he can relate to us more,” Zamora added.
“The ship goes down, the captain is responsible.”
When Buttigieg has tried to meet the urgency of the moment, his efforts seem to backfire. Consider the Douglass Plan debacle.
Through the plan, which includes strategies to improve health, education, voting rights, and entrepreneurship in communities of color, the Buttigieg campaign hoped to demonstrate his commitment to racial minorities.
But soon after its roll out, The Intercept reported that two of the three black South Carolina politicians Buttigieg’s campaign listed as supporters hadn’t actually endorsed the plan. The Intercept also reported that a press release the campaign sent out alongside an open letter featured in HBCU Times implied the plan’s 400 endorsees were black. (It listed only African-American names as featured endorsees.)
The story also said that an email from the campaign implied that the politicians listed as endorsees also backed Buttigieg’s presidential bid. On top of all that, The Intercept reported that some of the people named as supporters may reside out of state or couldn’t be found.
The ordeal drew national attention and further fueled the notion that Buttigieg’s supposed “race problem” would render him unelectable should he become the Democratic nominee.
Buttigieg’s South Carolina staffers Jarvis Houston and Lauren Brown, who are both black, insisted that the campaign never stated publicly that all the South Carolinians backing the policy were African American. “We have been very clear that not every supporter of the plan is African American, and we never gave the impression publicly that these people were endorsing Pete, only that they supported the plan,” Houston said.
Johnnie Cordero, chair of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina and one of the politicians who did not endorse the plan, said the question of whether all 400 people that endorsed it were actually black amounted to “nitpicking.” But he did find it problematic if the campaign implied that they were all black.
Cordero said he didn’t endorse the plan for a number of reasons, including that he couldn’t be sure who actually wrote it. According to Houston, multiple people authored the plan, including two black advisors: Portia Allen-Kyle, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice, and Chike Aguh of the McCrystal Group.
While Cordero said that the controversies around the plan aren’t “as damaging as one would think,” he also stressed that the candidate is the leader of the campaign. “[Buttigieg] is the captain of the ship … The ship goes down, the captain is responsible.”
Ultimately, Buttigieg’s answer to the race issue is to focus on economics.
Although the racial wealth gap in South Bend remains higher than it is nationally, the poverty rate has dropped from 32% in 2011, when Buttigieg was elected mayor, to 20% in 2017, the most recent year statistics are available.
In 2018, the city of South Bend teamed up with the South Bend Heritage Foundation to launch the West Side Small Business Resource Center, a community center designed to help new entrepreneurs of color by connecting them with business experts and networking opportunities. The resource center opened last year in a largely African-American neighborhood. James Summers, a business consultant involved in the effort, has described it as a “truly grassroots and community-focused approach to generating new wealth through small business.” When the facility opened its doors, Buttigieg said he got involved to narrow the city’s racial wealth gap.
Elizabeth Bennion, a political scientist at Indiana University, has cautioned against holding a single politician responsible for the economic changes in South Bend (or any city) since state and national trends have a large influence.
But Bennion said that mayors can work with city councils to set wage and benefits standards for companies seeking tax abatements and other incentives. They can attract and retain businesses, support efforts to raise local wages, or increase pay for city workers. Buttigieg did all that.
“Mayors can make the problems of poverty and economic inequality better or worse based on the policies and opportunities they create and support at a local level,” she said, adding that it could take a full term or longer for a mayor’s efforts to come to fruition.
Buttigieg told me that one way he plans to win over voters in majority-minority states like Nevada is by emphasizing his desire to improve their economic circumstances through policies like raising the federal minimum wage.
“I think the important thing is to make sure that we’re connecting with voters, whether they are with policy answers to knowing how much of a difference it disproportionately makes to women of color to raise the wage,” Buttigieg said. He also discussed helping entrepreneurs who are women of color, pointing out that they are the ones often “creating economic opportunities for others, but who face a lot of barriers when it comes to access to credit and the ability to grow their business.”
Tameika Devine, a Columbia, South Carolina, councilwoman, endorsed the Douglass Plan because of its emphasis on closing the racial wealth gap. She told me she’s tried to educate other city leaders about how historic forms of discrimination like redlining and Jim Crow still drive the racial wealth gap.
“One of the big things about the Douglass Plan to me is Mayor Pete addresses that history upfront and how a lot of our country’s policies allow the wealth gap to continue to grow along racial and ethnic lines,” she said. Devine, who had expressed concerns to The Intercept that her endorsement of the plan was perceived as an endorsement of the mayor, said she believes Buttigieg can recover from the Douglass Plan episode.
Many black voters just haven’t even heard of Buttigieg
According to the Nov. 18 Quinnipiac poll, 60% of likely black voters in South Carolina aren’t familiar enough with Buttigieg to have an opinion of him. Only 12% and 11% of these voters, respectively, said the same about Sanders and Biden.
Of course, even if voters get to know Buttigieg, there’s no guarantee they’ll back him over an established candidate like Biden. African Americans heavily back the former vice president, and Latino voters identify him as the candidate they believe can beat Trump.
While some people of color appreciate Biden’s experience or his ties to the Obama administration, others view him as a safe choice in a perilous time. His missteps on race — his central role in authoring the 1994 crime bill, his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, his numerous racially insensitive gaffes, the recent departure of his top Latina adviser — may have no bearing on these voters.
“We should never underestimate the power of name recognition,” Salgado said. “Biden is riding the coattails of an esteemed president. There’s also anxiety and fear permeating our communities. People are scared about whether they’re going to be deported or going to be safe in church.”
Buckmire paraphrased an anecdote from a Jonathan Capehart column, in which he recounted something an aunt told him: “The way the system is set up now, there is so much racism that it’s going to have to be an old white person to go after an old white person.”
This, of course, is not what Buttigieg, who is vying to be the youngest US president in history, would say.
At the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, he touted his military experience, politics of inclusion, and down-to-earth lifestyle as reasons why he’s a viable alternative to Trump. He assured the crowd that, though the president and his allies will do all they can to maintain power, their playbook won’t work on him.
Buttigieg went on to ask the audience to imagine the first day the sun comes up without Trump as president. He knows how high the stakes are for the 2020 election, he stressed.
“So much depends on getting this right,” he said, “because if there are four more years of this president, we will not recognize our United States of America.”
The mayor then punctuated his next three words: “We. Must. Win.”