Joe Darby, a prominent pastor in Charleston, S.C., was discussing the Democratic presidential field with fellow clergymen when Pete Buttigieg’s name came up. A fellow pastor quickly interjected.
“Isn’t that the dude who kissed his husband on TV?” the person asked skeptically, according to Darby.
Story Continued Below
The exchange highlights a major obstacle for Buttigieg, who’s vaulted into the top tier of Democratic candidates without gaining traction among African Americans, according to recent surveys of national and South Carolina Democrats. But as the mayor of South Bend, Ind., devotes more effort to campaigning for black votes in the South and elsewhere, he will have to break down some resistance over his sexual orientation, particularly among older voters, according to interviews with more than a dozen African American activists, political strategists and clergy, as well as a review of public polling.
Buttigieg and his campaign are well aware of the issue. As he skips from sold-out fundraisers to overflowing rallies around the country, Buttigieg set aside time last week for a smaller gathering of black LGBTQ faith leaders and activists in Houston. Gathered around a glass coffee table, Buttigieg opened up to the group of a dozen about his record with African Americans as mayor in South Bend, Ind. — an area that has generated some criticism — as well as his agenda for black voters and his experience as an openly gay candidate for president, including the challenges he may face.
“He’s white, male and gay, all three of those things are going to create obstacles for various communities — specifically, I think, the white and the gay, for the black community, are definitely going to be obstacles for him,” said Harrison Guy, a Houston-based choreographer and LGBTQ activist who led the discussion with the mayor. “He’s very aware of that.”
American views on LGBTQ rights and issues have moved rapidly in the last decade, and black support for bedrock issues like same-sex marriage has also jumped to a narrow majority in recent polling. But those numbers lag behind the nation: 61 percent of adults (and an even higher share of Democrats) backed same-sex marriage in a recent Pew Research Center poll, compared to 51 percent of African Americans.
“It’s an obstacle in the minds of some. And for others, it’s an opportunity,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist and a 5th-generation member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “He has opportunity to educate and take the temperature here and chart a pathway forward, because I suspect he will not be the last [openly gay] candidate” to run for president.
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on former President Barack Obama’s campaigns, compared Buttigieg’s campaign to other “first” candidates, including Obama’s history-making 2008 presidential run.
“Are there implicit biases that women candidates have to face? Absolutely. Are there biases that a black candidate has to face? Is there implicit baggage that a gay candidate has to face? Absolutely,” Belcher said. “How you inoculate yourself from those biases goes back to how you define yourself and talk about yourself authentically.”
Some of that involves building relationships with individual African American activists and voters to break the ice, which the Buttigieg campaign did in their latest swing through South Carolina, setting up private meetings with black leaders. Buttigieg’s regular invocation of his marriage and his husband, Chasten, on the campaign trail — usually in the context of his Christianity, “putting his faith on his sleeve” — is also an “excellent way to inoculate himself from that implicit bias about the gay community,” Belcher said.
Often, Buttigieg has told crowds that if “you got a problem with who I am,” including Vice President Mike Pence, then “your problem is not with me – your quarrel, sir – is with my creator.” That story is part of what’s launched Buttigieg from a longshot, little-known mayor to a serious presidential contender who raked in more than $7 million in the first fundraising quarter.
It’s also a way to connect with those wary voters, and by casting his marriage through the lens of his faith “can bring in those Christians he’s trying to reach,” because “he can say to them, ‘I’m just like you,’ a married person of faith,” said Guy, the Houston activist who met with Buttigieg.
Buttigieg also used a recent speech before LGBTQ activists in Las Vegas to promote empathy between minority groups.
“What every gay person has in common with every excluded person of every kind is knowing what it’s like to see a wall between you and the rest of the world, and wonder what it’s like on the other side,” Buttigieg said at an event for the Human Rights Campaign.
Based on public polling, support for gay rights has grown dramatically in recent years. In 2006, 43 percent of Americans said they would feel enthusiastic or comfortable about a candidate who is gay or lesbian, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. In April, 70 percent said they’d be enthusiastic or comfortable with it, and Buttigieg and his husband appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the headline: “First Family.”
Meanwhile, three-quarters of Democrats support same-sex marriage, according to a Pew Research Center poll. African American support has jumped to 51 percent, up from 39 percent in 2015. But as a group, black voters still lag compared to the party that gets most of their votes.
In particular, Democratic consultants emphasized that it could be a sticking point for older black voters. In 2017, 69 percent of African Americans aged 18 to 29 backed same-sex marriage, but just 40 percent of African Americans aged 65 and older did, according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll.
“For older African-American voters, yes, it may be an issue, and with older clergy, it may also be an obstacle. That’s also true for older, white, working-class voters, too,” said one national Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “Whether they tell a pollster that is an open question. Most people don’t like to admit that they have bias.”
But Pastor Delman Coates — who was among the first calls former President Barack Obama made in 2012 to shore up support among wary black clergy after he publicly endorsed same-sex marriage — said that the last seven years prove that there is “no wedge between blacks and gays.”
Coates, who ran for lieutenant governor of Maryland in 2014, said that when Buttigieg’s campaign “goes to places like South Carolina, I think the country is going to see that African American Christians are much more thoughtful, open, progressive, even if they may have personal differences, I think they’re going to find a much more loving welcoming community.”
Some African American strategists said that Buttigieg’s “bigger issue” for Buttigieg now lies in how “is he going to do to connect with the African American community” and whether he has “a history of working on building those relationships,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to MoveOn.org.
In recent weeks, Buttigieg has been criticized for a housing initiative in South Bend that pushed out low-income, largely minority families. Buttigeig’s decision to fire the city’s first black police chief in 2011 has also come under scrutiny, as has a 2015 remark (later walked back) that “all lives matter,” a phrase that Democratic activists believe devalues the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
“His challenge in black community goes beyond whether he’s gay or straight, it’s more about connectivity [to the community] and on answering questions about when he served as mayor and talking about his record,” Seawright said.
Buttigieg, who recently lunched with Rev. Al Sharpton, has acknowledged the work his campaign must do to build relationships with black voters during a swing through South Carolina last week, where he spoke to largely white audiences, even in majority-minority cities.
In Orangeburg, S.C., Buttigieg told an audience that “one of the most important pieces of homework for our campaign is to make sure that there is no question in the minds of minority voters, black voters here in South Carolina or anywhere in the country, where I stand and what I will do,” he said.
Buttigieg publicly outlined some of his early policy goals for black voters, an agenda that focuses on home ownership, health care, entrepreneurship, criminal justice reform and education. During the meeting in Houston, attendees asked Buttigieg what he was most proud to have done for the non-white community in South Bend, and Buttigieg highlighted his work on economic empowerment and policing, admitting that “they didn’t get everything right on the policing part,” Guy said
Yet Joel Payne, who served as Hillary Clinton’s director of outreach to African American media and advertising in 2016, said that while the Buttigieg team “deserve some benefit of the doubt” because they are “promising more substantive engagement on African-American issues,” they are still “very surface.”
Guy, for his part, walked away from the Houston meeting with Buttigieg impressed that the mayor “was interested in hearing [from us],” he said.
Buttigieg “understands there are barriers there, and that it’s something he’s going to have to get over,” Guy said. “He didn’t treat it like a photo-op. It was very much about relationship-building.”