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Politics

Pete Buttigieg has a problem with black voters. He needs to fix it or he’ll wind up back in South Bend

Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg joins black worshipers at a service in Rock Hill, S.C.
Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, who recently joined black worshipers at a service in Rock Hill, S.C., is striving to increase his support among African American voters.
(Sean Rayford / Getty Images)

Laura and Lamont Williams live in a house divided.

Laura is crazy for Pete Buttigieg, the young political phenom. “He just speaks to my heart,” she said after cheering the Indiana mayor at a rally that bulged beyond the capacity of the city’s red-brick amphitheater.

Lamont is undecided in the presidential race, but leaning toward Joe Biden, the septuagenarian sitting uneasily atop the Democratic field. “My important issue right now is winning,” he said, as his wife offered an indulgent smile. “Somebody who can beat Trump.”

Laura Williams, 42, is white, like the overwhelming majority of Buttigieg backers.

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Lamont Williams, 46, is black, like the voters who form the bedrock of Biden’s support.

Standing alongside his wife at last weekend’s outdoor rally — wearing a “Pete 2020” sticker, like a good husband — Williams was conspicuous as one of only about two dozen African Americans in the crowd of more than 1,500.

Lauren and Lamont Williams
Lauren Williams is an enthusiastic Pete Buttigieg supporter. Husband Lamont leans toward Joe Biden, but wore a “Pete 2020" sticker to be a good sport.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

The scarcity reflects a peril facing Buttigieg’s campaign.

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He may be a fundraising powerhouse. He may have surged into contention in Iowa and New Hampshire, the two early-voting states that will help cull the vast Democratic field. But it seems impossible for him to win the nomination without drastically improving his standing among African Americans, the base of the party, here in South Carolina and across the country.

Surveys show Buttigieg’s support among black voters mired in the low single digits and his approval rating, while positive, lagging far behind those of his main rivals, Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

A good part of the reason may be a lack of familiarity with the 37-year-old mayor of a midsized city.

“So much depends on a sense of knowing you,” Buttigieg told reporters after speaking at a Sunday service for black congregants from throughout the region. (Worshipers were greeted by a stack of Biden fliers on a table outside the sanctuary.)

“When you’ve been on the scene for years or for decades you have the benefit of voters feeling like they have a sense of you,” Buttigieg said. “I think that we can create that at an accelerated pace, but that means I’ve got to do the work.”

Some resistance may stem from controversies back home in South Bend, Ind., over the 2012 firing of the city’s black police chief and last summer’s fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer. There have also been campaign missteps. Earlier this month, Buttigieg returned thousands of dollars contributed by a Chicago lawyer who tried to block the release of a video in the 2014 police killing of a black teenager.

Some of it owes to Buttigieg’s relative inexperience, especially compared with the nearly half-century Biden has spent in public life — including eight years as Barack Obama’s highly regarded vice president.

“It’s not so much his age,” said Vaughn Wilson, 59, pausing on the campus of Columbia’s historically black Benedict College, where he serves as a dorm manager. “If he was the governor of Indiana, that wouldn’t be a problem.”

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Vaughn Wilson at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C.
Vaughn Wilson says Pete Buttigieg’s age, 37, doesn’t bother him, but he believes the Indiana mayor is too inexperienced to be president.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

And part of it may be the fact Buttigieg is openly gay, offending the sensibilities of some more socially conservative African Americans, like Charles Brooks III. “Not my cup of tea,” said the 80-year-old theater professor, as the candidate prepared to address a campus forum on racial justice being held a short walk down the hall.

Black voters make up about 20% of the Democratic electorate nationwide and more than half in several Southern states, including South Carolina, which falls fourth on the 2020 political calendar, after Iowa, New Hamphire and Nevada. Those numbers aren’t enough to decide who will be the nominee. But African Americans may determine who won’t be the nominee if they vote en masse the way they did for Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008, and for Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Buttigieg has worked in several ways to improve his standing among black voters.

He has prioritized hiring people of color as his flush campaign rapidly expands. He was introduced at church and at his Rock Hill rally by black supporters; questions submitted beforehand were read onstage by the African American president of Winthrop University’s Democratic club.

More substantively, Buttigieg has proposed what he calls the Douglass Plan, named after the famed abolitionist, to address the systemic racism that has plagued the country from its inception.

Among its initiatives, the 18-page proposal would direct 25% of federal contracting go to historically disadvantaged businesses; establish government-funded “Health Equity Zones” to address racial and demographic inequities in healthcare; enact a modern Voting Rights Act to prevent voter suppression; tighten the legal standard for police officers to use deadly force; abolish the death penalty; and eliminate federal incarceration for drug possession.

“It is not enough to replace a racist policy with a neutral policy and expect justice to find its way forward on its own,” he said at the Benedict College forum. “We have to bring intention, as much intention and resources as we brought into the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe” after World War II.

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Buttigieg is careful to acknowledge that he can’t say what it’s like to be black in America. “I have not had the experience of being more likely to be pulled over, or less likely to be called back for a job interview. Or less likely to be believed describing symptoms of pain,” he said.

But as a gay man, he went on, he knows what it’s like to face phobia, prejudice and the threat of violence for simply being oneself. “All of us in different ways have been led to question whether we belong,” he told the audience of black worshipers. “And I know what it is to look on the news and see your rights up for debate.”

(In a turnabout from his rally, Buttigieg was the only white face in a sea of hundreds of African American congregants.)

It’s not so much his age. If he was the governor of Indiana, that wouldn’t be a problem.
Vaughn Wilson, a Columbia, S.C. voter

Buttigieg has spent months answering questions about his paltry black support. He did so again after church, in a parking lot across the street, behind Soul Gourmet restaurant.

He acknowledged that some in the churchgoing South have a problem with his sexual orientation and the fact he has a husband, but insisted they would grow more comfortable once they got to know him and his policies, as voters in his city have done.

“I think as long as I can convey to voters here and across the country what my presidency would mean to their everyday lives, then a lot of the other stuff will fall away,” he said.

Victory in Iowa or New Hampshire, Buttigieg added, would help. “People need to know that you can win,” he said before ducking into a black SUV bound for his next stop, a traveling version of the Vietnam War memorial. “One of the best ways to settle that question is to do well someplace else.”

Lamont Williams, who drove two hours from Winston-Salem, N.C., so his wife could cheer Buttigieg, suggested as much.

“I was a staunch Hillary supporter and kind of had my reservations about Obama,” he said of the 2008 Democratic race. “But once he gained traction in Iowa, New Hampshire ... you started to feel momentum and it seemed like the electability was there.”

Alexander Brown
Alexander Brown, who will vote in his first presidential election in 2020, sees Pete Buttigieg’s youth as an asset.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

Resistance to Buttigieg’s sexual orientation may be harder to overcome.

Although polls show a narrow majority of African Americans support gay marriage, they are far less supportive than other Democrats.

Alexander Brown believes age, gender and sexual orientation are irrelevant to a candidate’s qualifications.

“When it comes to judging a president, it should be policy,” said Brown, who is 17 and eager to cast his first presidential ballot in 2020. Although still uncommitted, he likes the way Buttiegieg “takes the time to actually break down policies that youth like myself don’t really understand but will one day.”

Older black voters --- the likeliest to turn out -- are more resistant.

“If that’s what he says he is, I mean, we can’t change that,” said Phyllis Bouler, 65, as she awaited the start of services. “But that would be a problem for some people.”

Henry Jones, for instance. He knew little about Buttigieg but immediately soured on his candidacy when he learned of his marital status.

“I don’t think it’s right for gay people to marry,” said Jones, 75. “They’re not going up there” — he pointed heavenward, before turning a judgmental thumb down — “they’re going down there. I’m not saying he wouldn’t make a good president. But I’m not going to vote for him.”

Henry Jones
Henry Jones believes homosexuality is a sin but will vote for Pete Buttigieg if he is the Democratic nominee against President Trump.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

That said, if Biden -- Jones favorite in the Democratic primary -- falls short the retired textile worker didn’t hesitate: He would choose Buttigieg over President Trump.


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