Pete Buttigieg gets black voters’ attention, their vote is another matter
INDIANAPOLIS — As the path forward in the 2020 presidential campaign starts to narrow, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been trying to find support in the one segment of the Democratic base he can’t seem to reach: people of color.
He’s likely struggling for a variety of reasons. He’s young and lacks national experience. Acceptance of marriage equality and LGBTQ rights among African Americans and Latinos is growing, but isn’t as high as among other groups. That could be a challenge for the openly gay Democrat. And there have been a lot of questions about his handling of the South Bend police shooting last month in which a white officer killed a black man he said was wielding a knife.
IndyStar interviews at last week’s National Urban League conference, with leaders and attendees from across the country, offer a glimpse at the struggle Buttigieg is having to gain traction.
Some like his ideas but think he’s not ready to take on President Donald Trump. Others think he’s not done enough to stand out in a large field of candidates, many with much broader experiences and proven records. Several indicated he has to do more to earn the trust of African American and Latino voters.
“I think he has to get advocates,” said Carlos Clanton, an Urban League official and school board member in Norfolk, Virginia. “He has to get individuals within the African American community that people trust to advocate on his behalf.”
The conference is just one of several that Buttigieg and other candidates are attending to reach minority voters this summer. The South Bend mayor addressed the NAACP earlier this month in Detroit. He and others are also scheduled to address the National Association of Black Journalists in Miami on Aug. 8. And Buttigieg will be among 20 candidates trying to reach a wider audience during the CNN debates in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Buttigieg, who declined to meet with IndyStar following last week’s National Urban League appearance, has acknowledged that he needs to do more to reach black and Hispanic voters.
Buttigieg is pitching his Douglass Plan for black Americans
In Indianapolis, he pitched his Douglass Plan to end systemic racism, a proposal that goes as far as or further than similar policies from other candidates in the field. Urban League leaders note it also looks a lot like their own plan.
Still, it was clear from canvassing the crowd at the National Urban League conference that he has more work to do to earn votes. Several questioned his willingness to win over broader support to push his plan into law. Others wondered about his handling of the city’s police department.
The Douglass Plan: Buttigieg rolls out details of his blueprint for African Americans
It’s noteworthy that he was better received there than at a July 18 appearance at the Young Democrats of America’s annual convention, also in Indianapolis.
At that address, he heard “black lives matter” chants before and during his speech from the smattering of African Americans in the crowd.
There were no chants among the 400 or so people who listened Friday, many intently, to what he had to say. A lot of folks laughed at his jokes and cheered when he called Trump a racist.
Biden, Harris got louder cheers at Urban League conference
His willingness to say he would end systemic racism in American institutions earned him applause multiple times. The cheering wasn’t as loud or as intense as it was for former Vice President Joe Biden or U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the two candidates who also spoke that often poll ahead of him. But the crowd sounded intrigued.
Winning over minority voters has in the past been key to winning the Democratic primary. Just ask U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who in 2016 struggled to reach African American voters after initially forming an all-white leadership team and campaigning heavily in states with less diversity.
A Monmouth University poll released last week suggests Buttigieg is barely registering with African Americans in South Carolina, the first primary with a large number of black voters. National polling in recent weeks has shown similar results.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans, said voters of color look at the relationships public officials have with their own constituents, how diverse their campaign staffs are and their platforms.
Morial didn’t speak to the first two issues, though in the past Buttigieg has been criticized for not having a diverse enough campaign staff. He’s also taken heat after the police shooting in part because the department has become less diverse on his watch.
Morial, though, likes what he’s seen in the Douglass Plan, noting it mirrors many of the Urban League’s own ideas for economic inclusion, educational equality and criminal justice reform. And he’s glad a candidate is embracing those issues. Even if Buttigieg loses, Morial said, some of the ideas may live on in the Democratic nominee’s campaign.
“I think he’s an intelligent person,” Morial said. “I think a lot of people are taking a look at his candidacy and I know people are excited he is here.”
Clanton, president of the National Urban League Young Professionals, said Buttigieg hasn’t been on his radar. He wasn’t familiar with Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan, for instance, but he does find the mayor interesting.
“I do respect the fact that he did come off the campaign trail to handle some of the situations going on in his city,” Clanton said. “I think he brings some different things to the race. He’s a fresh face, and there are a lot of younger people who are looking for something different.”
‘He’s learning,’ but Buttigieg isn’t ready, some say
Conference attendees had mixed reactions.
Sherry Allen, 57, an information technology specialist in Sacramento, California, found him funny, charismatic and impressive. But at this point, she plans to vote for Harris.
She said her family has had its own run-ins with police brutality in California. She was glad Buttigieg was upfront during his address in discussing his failure to make the South Bend Police Department more diverse.
She also liked what he had to say in the first Democratic debate, where he told the national audience he “couldn’t get it done.” Allen thinks he may have a role in the next president’s administration. And he may be a successful candidate — some day.
“He’s learning,” she said. “He’ll get a chance eventually, not this time, but he’ll get recognition and he’ll grow.”
Shani Abrahams, 27, an analyst in New York, said the police shooting was concerning for her too, though like Allen she was glad he addressed that directly.
“It seems like they’re taking the right steps to address the issues,” she said. “They’re having an independent investigation, and they’re trying to increase diversity in the police force.”
She especially agreed with one comment he made, that too few black kids aspire to be police officers. Buttigieg blamed that on what he referred to as a perception that police are soldiers on the other side of a war. Abrahams agreed with Buttigieg that there needs to be change.
She liked what he had to say about helping minority communities, but didn’t feel like his ideas particularly stood out from those of the other candidates. However, she thought another candidate who attended the conference, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, had more solutions to systemic racism.
“One thing I do appreciate about having an array of candidates, it gives a lot space to address a lot of issues we have to address,” Abrahams said. “(Buttigieg) was honest and fair in his assessment about some of the issues we are having in American right now, and he had some pretty tangible responses and solutions to those problems.”
Charles Jackson, 35, who works for a health care nonprofit in Baltimore, said he was curious how Buttigieg would talk to a primarily black audience, and he came away impressed. Still, he won’t vote for Buttigieg, at this point.
“Realistically, would he be able to beat Trump in the general election?” Jackson wondered. “At this point … no.”
Other voters came away less impressed.
After the forum, Elia Quintana of Washington, D.C., couldn’t distinguish him from another candidate who spoke at the conference: self-described conservative Ami Horowitz. That’s a problem for Buttigieg, because the Los Angeles filmmaker sounds a lot like a free-market Republican — in other words, the mayor’s opposite.
The 40-year-old Quintana, who consults with Fortune 500 companies on diversity, is hoping for a Biden-Harris ticket. She said Buttigieg doesn’t have much name recognition. She also wonders how sincere he is about reaching out to and talking to voters of color. She said she goes to a lot of events for minority voters and hasn’t seen him around.
“America is a melting pot and you really need to diversify, especially when you are wanting to be the president of the people.”
Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at 317-444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.