‘I need help’: Pete Buttigieg confronts lack of African American support in South Carolina

Posted at 10:15 PM, May 06, 2019

It was clear the moment Pete Buttigieg took the mic here in Orangeburg that the South Bend, Indiana, mayor has a problem in South Carolina.

As the Democratic presidential candidate stepped onto the stage set up for him in a white-walled event space, he stared out into a sea of white faces.

In more racially homogeneous states like New Hampshire or Iowa, the demographic make-up of the room wouldn’t be noteworthy. But Buttigieg was taking the stage in a central South Carolina town home to two historically black universities where the majority of residents are black.

Buttigieg’s two-day swing through South Carolina crystalized that the mayor’s rise from presidential bottom feeder to top tier candidate has been largely powered by white voters. The lack of African American support is a key issue in South Carolina, a state where black voters made up 61% of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016. But it is also important in the broader Democratic primary, where black voters are a critical constituency for Democrats in states across the country.

Polls show Buttigieg is in the top three candidates among white voters but is in the middle of the pack among black voters. And the unexpected nature of his rise has also highlighted his lack of infrastructure in early states, including South Carolina, where the mayor had no public professional staff on the ground throughout this visit.

The lack of diversity at his events was obvious to the mayor throughout the trip, which also included predominantly white crowds in West Charleston and Columbia. The disparity led Buttigieg — in the middle of his appearance in Orangeburg — to deliver a plea to the 10-or-so voters of color in the 75-person audience.

“I need help,” Buttigieg said bluntly in response to a question from Charles C. Patton, a 21-year old physics student at South Carolina State University. “Out here, people are just getting to know me, and trust, in part, is a function of quantity time, and we are racing against time.”

Buttigieg later told the audience in Columbia that his campaign “in the phase of growing our organization” and that he “has a lot of work to do to make sure that we are assembling a coalition that reflects the diversity of our party.”

Buttigieg’s campaign touted the trip to South Carolina as a chance for the mayor to highlight his policies for black voters to black voters, plans that include a focus on criminal justice reform, education and black entrepreneurship.

But what became apparent during Buttigieg’s swing through that state was that even though the mayor has plans for black America, he has few black supporters to hear them.

‘We just don’t trust him’

Buttigieg attributes the lack of support among African Americans to two interconnected issues: A lack of awareness that leads to a lack of trust.

“It’s a relationship,” he said. “And that relationship here has to be built over time.”

Patton, who introduced Buttigieg in Orangeburg on Monday after the campaign asked for his help, said he was impressed with Buttigieg’s answers on issues impacting African American voters. But he added that black voters view Buttigieg as a “wild card,” when they are more confident in supporting candidates “someone that we have (known) before or someone who looks like us.”

“We just don’t trust him,” said Patton. “It is not necessarily his policies because I know his policies, but I don’t think we even really take him seriously really because we have (former Vice President) Joe Biden in the race, (New Jersey Sen.) Cory Booker, (California Sen.) Kamala Harris and (Vermont Sen.) Bernie Sanders, so it is kind of hard for him to get his footing in the race for black voters.”

Biden is particularly well liked among African Americans in South Carolina and his depth of support, relative to Buttigieg, was clear on Monday afternoon when the mayor headlined a small, invite-only and largely white event in Columbia. The Buttigieg event was across the street from Hyatt Park Community Center, where just days earlier Biden headlined a rally with an audience that was significantly more diverse than any Buttigieg drew.

Buttigieg has responded to this issue by seeking to introduce himself privately to African American power brokers in South Carolina. During the two-day trip, Buttigieg held two private roundtables with African American leaders in academia, religion and business.

“We’re hoping that both public relationships that we’re building and the ones that we’re privately building up will yield dividends over time as we build or organization,” Buttigieg told reporters in Orangeburg.

But the mayor added that he understands black voters who are skeptical of him, especially considering long-standing relationships with lawmakers like Biden, Booker and Harris.

“If I’m a black voter, I am going to have more trust automatically with a candidate who is a candidate of color, and some candidates, I’m going to feel like I know because I’ve observed them over 10, 20 or 30 years,” he said Monday. “To have somebody who comes on the scene who is not a candidate of color and who has also not been a national figure for years, it means we’ve got to do in a matter of months, that same kind of trust building and relationship building work.”

That is clear in recent polls.

A recent poll by Monmouth University found that Buttigieg is at 13% with white voters nationally, putting him only behind Biden or Sanders. When it comes to black voters, though, Buttigieg is at 2%, staring up at Harris, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Booker, as well as Biden and Sanders.

Jaime Harrison, the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party who is considering running for Senate in 2020, met with Buttigieg in Columbia and said after that it was incumbent on the mayor to meet black voters where they are and not expect them to come to him.

“You go to where they are,” Harrison said. “My advice for him is to go to the historically black colleges and universities because that’s where black students are, go into senior homes in black communities because that’s where elderly black folks are. Visit churches. Go to the NAACP meetings here in South Carolina.”

‘Black voters don’t know his name’

What was clear in conversations with African American voters at Buttigieg events was that they believe his lack of support from the community is based more in a lack of awareness than a rejection of his policy positions.

“It is definitely an issue,” said Jeremiah McFadden, a 22-year-old student from Lake City, South Carolina, who came to the event after a friend told him about it. “I think more people are like me, they care but they don’t know about events like this. It is just about getting out there more and getting the black community more engaged. They would love to come out, they just don’t know about it.”

McFadden said after Buttigieg’s remarks that he was impressed with his policies. Buttigieg pledged to attack racist “housing inequities that persist in our country and in our communities,” promised to help start black owned businesses, which he called “the most powerful engines to create employment in the black communities,” and lambasted voter suppression of African American voters, saying they represent “no more troubling pattern in the erosion of our democracy.”

At his event in Columbia, Buttigieg said, as president, he would incentivize every state to pass “a hate crime law,” mentioning that “there could be federal incentives for that to change, if we insisted on it.”

That honesty, McFadden said, was refreshing.

“We know the issues going on in the black community. It is not hidden,” he said. “Let’s talk about them. Let’s just lay it all out on the table and talk about them.”

And it’s that bluntness that led Larry McCutcheon, a 69-year-old retired United Methodist pastor from Orangeburg, to believe Buttigieg has an opening with black voters in South Carolina.

“I thought he answered the questions directly. He has a clear vision for the country. My question is will a candidate like this young man resonate with the masses,” McCutcheon said. “Black voters don’t know his name. … I think when he comes back you will see a large African American turnout.”

Buttigieg, in a tacit acknowledgment that the trip left a lot of questions about his ability to woo African American voters unanswered, ended the visit by casting the trip as a starting point not a sign of where he will finish.

“I am here for this conversation,” he told the audience in Columbia before leaving the state, “which I hope this was a beginning of.”