NEW ORLEANS—Pete Buttigieg entered the 25th annual Essence Fest Sunday morning with nothing to lose. Polls show the South Bend mayor with little to no support among black voters and his handling of a recent police shooting has had him on the defensive for weeks while his rivals—several of whom appeared at Essence on Saturday—have been building momentum.
Which is why on a brutally sweltering day he found himself in a dark suit and tie, walking into the New Orleans Convention Center to do a set as Tyler Perry’s warm-up act.
On his way in, Buttigieg stopped to chat with the two black women who manned his campaign table outside the Power Stage, where a panel on how to help formerly incarcerated black women reenter society was just wrapping up. A handful of older black women spotted Buttigieg, and queued up for photos, smiling broadly and chatting with the young mayor.
A television crew soon materialized, drawing more onlookers, many of whom had no idea who was standing at the small throng's center. With 15 minutes before his speech was set to start, a staffer interrupted. “I’m sorry but we have to go, his speech is about to start,” he explained to a handful of middle-aged black women—who ignored his pleas to let the candidate off the hook. After a few more handshakes and selfies, the diminutive Buttigieg was finally hustled off backstage, where he’d wait to try and reintroduce himself to black America.
An early star of the 2020 Democratic primaries, Buttigieg’s momentum stalled after South Bend police shot and killed 54-year-old Eric Logan in June. Although Buttigieg’s handling of housing and gentrification issues had already become problematic issues for many black voters and pundits, the Logan shooting sent the campaign into a tailspin. Criticism only increased after a viral video of Buttigieg being confronted by Logan’s family and protesters came out in which Buttigieg appeared to say he wasn’t asking for their vote. Then during the debate Buttigieg failed to right the ship, and, even though he admitted he did not handle issues like growing diversity on South Bend’s police force adequately, he caused further questions for black voters unhappy with his answers.
While Buttigieg’s zero support with black voters is of huge concern for his campaign, it also offers the political neophyte something of an opportunity. The lack of support in part reflects his lack of popularity due to his record, but it also shows that he’s simply unknown in much of the black community—something Rev. Al Sharpton obliquely highlighted in introducing Buttigieg.
“I told him it took me two weeks to learn to say his name right, but don’t worry about that it took me a month to say Obama’s name right,” Sharpton joked.
From the start of his brief remarks, it was clear Buttigieg was aiming to reframe the narrative about his handling of race issues, though he was careful to not avoid his, or his party’s, recent problems. He invoked Logan’s name in acknowledging a lack of success in dealing with police brutality while mayor, repeatedly lamented “systemic racism” in education, health care, and housing, and even criticized the Democratic Party for being “under the spell of the idea of colorblindness.”
Buttigieg also focused much of his remarks on black women, at one point calling for a national law outlawing “natural hair discrimination” and arguing that black women are “not just the backbone of the Democratic Party, but the bone and sinew that is making our democracy whole. We have seen time and time again, especially in the last couple elections, that when black women mobilize, outcomes change.”
During a Q&A with Sharpton, Essence CEO Michelle Ebanks, and Essence owner Richelieu Dennis, Buttigieg used a question about former Vice President Joe Biden’s apology for praising segregationist senators to argue for greater accountability and involvement in race issues for white politicians. “I think it was a step forward. When you're responsible for something you’ve got to own it,” he said, adding that “especially white candidates need to find their voices on this issue.”
Aside from a few small groups of vocal white supporters in the audience, Buttigieg’s reception was polite, if largely muted. Some of his lines hit: for instance, when he declared “our entire health-care system is burdened by racism, when black women are dying from maternal complications at three times the rate of white women” much of the crowd applauded and cheered. But other obvious applause lines, notably his denunciation of workplace discrimination against black women for their hair style, landed flat. In fact, probably the biggest Buttigieg-related applause came after the candidate was off-stage during an interview with Perry. As the interview was closing, Perry—wearing a winter jacket despite the 100 degree temps in New Orleans—jokingly complained “Mayor Buttigieg got five hours up here!” which sent the audience in hysterics.
After the event, it didn’t appear that Buttigieg had won over vast swaths of the audience. But that was never really in the cards, nor did it seem to be the point for his campaign. Essence is, after all, a celebration of blackness and, specifically, black women. And Buttigieg’s calm, straightforward approach to public speaking doesn’t quite match the upbeat nature of much of the festival. Indeed, while former first lady Michelle Obama was given the rock star treatment Saturday night—addressing the main stage in the Superdome to thunderous applause—none of the four other presidential candidates brought down the house. For instance, while Sens. Corey Booker (NJ), Elizabeth Warren (MA), and Kamala Harris (CA) were greeted warmly on Saturday, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke—who like Buttigieg is a relatively unknown figure in the black community—was given a reception similar to Buttigieg.
Reactions to Buttigieg’s speech were decidedly mixed.
For some attendees, Buttigieg’s appearance at least put him on their radar in a positive way. Lisa Bush said that while she didn’t know anything about Buttigieg before seeing him Sunday, she liked what she heard and wanted to learn more about the political newcomer. “He used a lot of buzzwords that aroused my interest,” Bush said. The 60-year-old educator from New Orleans also said she thought it was positive that he even came to Essence, which many white politicians have avoided.
“I congratulate him for just having the courage to… present his white face to a black audience,” she said.
Still, for other black voters, Buttigieg’s record as mayor remains a disqualifier.
“Am I fan of his? No, I am not,” said Angela Jackson, a New Orleans medical professional. Jackson, who has lost two family members to police violence, said the Logan shooting and Buttigieg’s response was deeply troubling, and that while some of what he said sounded positive, she remained concerned with a lack of specific, concrete policy proposals. “It’s very disheartening to me… these race issues are very serious for our community,” Jackson said.
“It’s just insane that we live in the 21st century and we’re still dealing with these issues… I just feel like I’m living in Jim Crow.”