As Mayor Pete Buttigieg kickstarts his campaign to win over African-American voters who are skeptical of his spotty track record on issues of concern to black communities—or who are entirely unfamiliar with him at all—the millennial mayor is returning to one of the touchstones of his early campaign: his faith.
“It's not for nothing that a lot of my experiences even back home addressing black voters, specifically, is in church,” Buttigieg recently told reporters aboard his campaign bus in New Hampshire, in response to a question about what “clicks” with African-American audiences. “Knowing how important an organizing principle faith is in so many black families, in so many parts of the black community.”
Buttigieg, more than any other candidate seeking the Democratic nomination, has emphasized his identity as a Christian as part of his appeal to voters who, at first glance, might not feel like they have a lot in common with the white millennial mayor from the Midwest. In a series of appearances in front of predominantly black audiences across the American South this week, Buttigieg frequently leaned into his Episcopalian faith as a way to connect with black voters who have been, until recently, an afterthought for his campaign.
“I believe that I am here to make myself useful—that I am part of this political process to make myself useful, but also that I was put on this Earth in order to make myself useful to others,” Buttigieg told a largely black congregation during Sunday services at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. “These are the values that I was taught by my parents. These are the values that I’m taught by my faith.”
The appearance at Greenleaf, which was founded by formerly enslaved people and has served as a hub for civil rights activism under the Rev. William J. Barber II, kicked off a week of events, policy launches and advertising spots intended to boost his support among non-white voters. The next day, Buttigieg held a meet-and-greet in Allendale, South Carolina, a town where three-quarters of residents are black and which hasn’t seen a Democratic candidate for president since John Edwards campaigned there in 2008.
Allendale Democratic Party Chair Willa Jennings began the event with a question about his lack of support among black voters.
“I hear a lot about how you don’t have support from African-Americans… I just want to know why they’re saying that about you,” Jennings asked in front of the 50-person audience, much smaller in size than Buttigieg’s recent rallies in Iowa and New Hampshire. Buttigieg responded that while it’s important for him to earn the support of black voters, he’s “new on the scene,” and doesn’t expect communities that have been “taken for granted” by other Democratic candidates to grant him their trust so easily.
“We’ve got to share our own city’s story, where we’ve had the good, the bad, and the in-between,” Buttigieg said.
The week-long outreach itinerary also included the release of a “health equity” plan intended to boost health-care access and treatment quality for patients of color and other at-risk communities; a business round-table with community leaders in Birmingham, Alabama; and a tour of South Carolina State University, the only public historically black college and university in the state, to visit the Orangeburg Massacre Monument, which commemorates the shooting of three young black men protesting a segregated bowling alley by South Carolina Highway Patrol officers. Buttigieg also dropped his first statewide television ad in South Carolina. The spot, part of a $2 million ad buy, begins with Buttigieg quoting scripture, and features B-roll of him speaking to largely black voters and supporters.
“In our White House, you won’t have to shake your head and ask yourself, whatever happened to ‘I was hungry and you fed me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me’?” Buttigieg says in the ad, quoting Matthew 25:35.
Buttigieg has emphasized his Episcopalian faith since the outset of his candidacy, alternately to welcome religious voters who have felt neglected by Democrats or to highlight what he sees as the theological hypocrisy of Christian evangelicals who support President Donald Trump.
“I think good faith is so important,” Buttigieg told The Daily Beast in a conversation about his relationship with Vice President Mike Pence in March. “Even when I have a very stark disagreement with somebody, it’s just a lot easier on both sides I think for us to navigate it if we both understand where the other is coming from, and believe that those different opinions are something we came by honestly.”
Rep. André Carson, an Indiana Democrat and the sole black member of the state’s congressional delegation, told The Daily Beast that Buttigieg’s approach to black voters is a strong one.
“African-Americans form the backbone of the Democratic Party—in Indiana and across America. Our community’s ongoing commitment to social justice and civil rights has and should serve as a moral compass as the party continues to move in a progressive direction,” Carson told The Daily Beast. While noting that he has not yet endorsed any candidate for president, Carson said that he believes Buttigieg “recognizes and appreciates this legacy,” and hopes he continues to “build bridges to heal the divides that exist.”
“All candidates should prioritize achieving greater understanding of issues that impact African-Americans and other minority groups,” Carson said.
No Democratic candidate has won the party’s nomination without winning a majority of African-Americans in more than three decades, and black voters are a key demographic in several must-win general election states like Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Polling indicates that Buttigieg has his work cut out for him. His polling numbers among African-American likely voters in South Carolina are infinitesimal, according to a recent Quinnipiac survey that showed him with the support of zero percent of black respondents. Buttigieg’s campaign has been quick to point out that nearly half of African-Americans told pollsters that they hadn’t heard enough about the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city, and Buttigieg himself has noted that no candidate aside from former Vice President Joe Biden has yet been able to build the kind of diverse coalition Democrats say they need to beat Trump.
With these obstacles to support, faith could be a useful method to introduce him as a candidate, particularly as a gay candidate. A Politico/Morning Consult poll published in October found that more voters are wary of supporting a gay candidate than almost any other minority group, with the exception of an atheist, although Buttigieg has aggressively pushed back on the notion that homophobia could be at the root of his lack of support in black communities.
“If you look at look at the most anti-LGBT politicians and policies in recent years, [it’s] mostly white voters bringing them to power,” Buttigieg told reporters on his campaign bus last month.
Barber, the pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church, similarly urged the white people in attendance at Sunday services to “stop putting that on black folk,” calling the idea that African-Americans are disproportionately homphobic a “false narrative that was created by the National Organization for Marriage to separate people.”
“There’s some phobia among all folks,” Barber preached.
There’s no guarantee that black voters will flock to Buttigieg once they become more familiar with his much-touted biography—particularly since some aspects of those biography have complicated his outreach to black voters so far. From the long history of tensions between law enforcement and black residents in South Bend to Buttigieg’s past statements about minority public school students lacking academic role models, which prompted a highly read piece in The Root titled “Pete Buttigieg Is a Lying MF.” (Buttigieg later called the author of that piece, who said of that conversation that “Pete Buttigieg listened, which is all you can ask a white man to do.”)
To some black lawmakers, however, Buttigieg’s late outreach comes off as borderline desperate.
“He is trying to get every single black person he can think of,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), when asked about Buttigieg’s outreach to the Congressional Black Caucus. “He acts as though he’s never interacted with black people. He represents a city that is 26 percent black.”
Even Buttigieg’s mostly white supporters have started publicly fretting about his anemic support among black voters. At a barn party in central New Hampshire last month, one white supporter asked Buttigieg how he planned to “get beyond white New Hampshire, white Iowa” and address the concerns of black voters to build the coalition.
Those weaknesses have prompted opponents like former HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Sen. Cory Booker to blast Buttigieg’s lack of black support as disqualifying in and of itself—and even some of his most prominent black supporters have found themselves facing accusations that they’re being used as pawns by the candidate. A thread calling Buttigieg’s travelling press secretary Nina Smith “his token black woman” has been retweeted by numerous liberal critics of the mayor, and an event held by black Buttigieg supporters in South Bend on Wednesday descended into chaos when a group of Black Lives Matter activists turned up.
“Where are the black leaders who don’t have three-piece suits, leather jackets, and nice clothing?” a white man in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt yelled at the event, interrupting South Bend Common Council member Sharon McBride, who had just returned from joining Buttigieg at campaign events in South Carolina “to be a witness” to his work on behalf of black constituents.
“Who chose these people as black leaders?” the man asked, before seizing the microphone from McBride and saying that he wanted to hear “from a real black woman.”
The man was later removed from the event, but not until an older woman in attendance threateningly raised her cane to quell his protest.
Buttigieg, who was not in attendance, told reporters that the incident “shows kind of where politics has come to.”
“This is the climate that we’re in, and we need to continue making sure that everyone is empowered to speak their truth, their experience, and in particular, when it comes to South Bend’s story,” he said.