Buttigieg's thing with black voters? It's S.C.'s turn

Polls are open in the first early voting state with a significant African American population.
Image: Pete Buttigieg, 2020 Presidential Candidates Speak At The Black Church Conversation Series
Pete Buttigieg leaves a criminal justice roundtable at the Black Church Presidential Candidate Conversation series' event in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 2019.Elijah Nouvelage / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

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By Adam Edelman and Lauren Egan

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Georgette Mayo, who is African American, doesn't like Pete Buttigieg.

"I don't trust him," said Mayo, an archivist at the College of Charleston, who has narrowed her choices in Saturday's Democratic primary to Tom Steyer and Elizabeth Warren.

"In regards to him as mayor in South Bend, and the friction that there was with the police chief — he just hasn't made up for that," she said. "To me, he's just not even a consideration."

Mayo is among the many black voters in South Carolina who — citing Buttigieg's mixed record on race when he was a mayor in Indiana — say they just can't fathom backing him.

Buttigieg's struggles to win over African American voters have long been in the spotlight.

He's defended policy decisions he made as mayor that were not well received by the city's black community, and he’s faced blowback in confronting race relations and policing there.

Buttigieg's challenge in tackling race issues, however, are especially pertinent in South Carolina, where black voters make up a majority of the Democratic electorate and where every winner of the state's Democratic primary since 1992 (except for John Edwards in 2004) has gone on to win the party's nomination.

A Monmouth University poll of likely Democratic voters in South Carolina released Thursday showed Buttigieg with just 2 percent backing from African Americans. (Joe Biden led with 45 percent).

But despite a flurry of efforts in recent weeks to improve his low level of support among African American voters in the state and nationally, political strategists and voters say he's falling far short with this key constituency — and running out of time.

"When you look at Pete's record and his past, you can safely say he's been his own worst enemy when it comes to race," said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic consultant who is not affiliated with any campaign.

The efforts Buttigieg has made to make inroads with black voters — which include myriad plans and proposals, listening sessions and meetings with black leaders — aren't likely to change things, Seawright added.

"Our community is not so interested in plans — our community is interested in actions," he said. "And there isn't a lot of action in his past when you look at his record."

Buttigieg has, in recent weeks, crisscrossed Nevada and South Carolina — whose electorates are far more diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire, the other two early-voting states where he performed strongly — with the small number of African American lawmakers who have endorsed him.

He has made a key part of his stump speech an admission that efforts he undertook to improve the lives of black residents in South Bend were insufficient, vowing to learn from his mistakes and take seriously input from the black community.

"I was humbled, again and again by the challenge, and by the intractability of some of the issues that we faced, knowing that we have so much more work to do to confront the impact of institutional racism," Buttigieg said this week at a campaign event in North Charleston, reiterating key lines from speeches he's made recently in in South Carolina.

And this month, his campaign launched a new vertical on its website titled "The Record," which is designed to "correct lies and misinformation" and focuses heavily on racial issues in South Bend.

Buttigieg has also run ads in South Carolina highlighting support from Walter Clyburn Reed, the grandson of Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., (who supports Biden). He regularly touts his support from state Rep. JA Moore, the only black lawmaker in the state to have endorsed Buttigieg, and an endorsement from The State newspaper in Columbia, which wrote that his outreach to African Americans was "genuine" and "undertaken in good faith."

And on Thursday, he met in Washington with the Congressional Black Caucus — a session that the group's chair, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., called "very good."

Buttigieg's campaign, when asked to comment for this article, referred to several remarks the candidate had made in recent weeks on the campaign trail, including at a Nevada event this month during which he acknowledged that as mayor, "there were things I could not see because I don't have the lived experience of being treated differently because of the color of my skin."

Virtually since it launched, Buttigieg's campaign has had to confront race-related issues in his hometown, including his decision as mayor to demote the city's first black police chief. Race tensions exploded anew after a white city police officer killed a black resident last June. After the shooting, Buttigieg unveiled his Douglass Plan — named after Fredrick Douglass — to combat institutional racism, but even that prompted widespread criticism from African American leaders in South Bend and across the U.S., who pointed out he hadn't addressed those issues more forcefully in his two terms as mayor.

Those problems have stuck with him — no matter the efforts he's undertaken to change how black voters see him.

"Black voters are not monolithic but you could say they are united in the fact that they're focused on trust. They want to trust the candidate they vote for," said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but is unaffiliated this year. "Buttigieg did not enter this race with years of goodwill with black voters like some of the other candidates, like Joe Biden."

"He is not a known quantity to the African American community at all, and that fact that he has a mixed record, of course, does not help at all," he added.

Deborah Wright, a retired Charleston resident and a Warren supporter, reworded that lack of trust more bluntly.

"We don’t even have a conversation about Pete," she said.

Priscilla Thompson contributed.