Round O, S.C. — When Pete Buttigieg visited a fifth-generation African American farm and vineyard in rural South Carolina, the Democratic presidential contender wasn’t the only elected official from South Bend, Indiana, in attendance.
One of the city’s council members, Sharon McBride, was among the nine participants seated on the lawn of a 1940s shotgun farmhouse, and she was the only one who did not speak during the lengthy and cordial conversation. At another roundtable Buttigieg held in North Charleston with low-wage workers, McBride again was seated on the panel and did not say a word throughout the friendly event.
But when the third stop of Buttigieg’s recent South Carolina trip didn’t go quite as smoothly, McBride sprung from her seat in the front row as her mayor faced questions about why he seemingly had failed to connect with black voters.
“I can be a witness to some of these things. One of the myths is that he doesn’t have minority support,” McBride, who is African American, told a room of predominantly black Democrats in Allendale, South Carolina. “If you look at the statistics and the math, I believe in your reelection, you got 80% of the vote, and of the 80%, you have the city of South Bend that is 40% minority. So, minorities also had to vote to get Mayor Pete elected.”
Deploying South Bend allies such as McBride on the mayor’s behalf is part of a growing strategy from Buttigieg’s campaign as he grapples with a persistent struggle to win over black voters. It also comes amid a drumbeat of criticism from some in his hometown that the outgoing mayor didn’t do enough in eight years to improve the lives of minorities.
The new approach isn’t limited to campaign trail appearances. A social media push with testimonial videos from South Bend leaders of color and an event in the city lauding Buttigieg’s work as mayor have aimed to reinforce the outreach, even as the latter drew national attention after it was disrupted by a Black Lives Matter protester.
Buttigieg’s campaign has dubbed this effort “South Bend stories,” and the message amounts to this: The mayor has support from black and Latino voters and has worked on issues they care about. But don’t just take his word for it, here’s what members of the community have to say.
With such stories largely being presented by the campaign’s ubiquitous social media operation, they also risk coming across as orchestrated and polished instead of authentic.
Asked by the Tribune after his Allendale event if he needed validators like McBride to bolster his appeal to black voters, Buttigieg described it as a key element of his pitch.
“One of the things that I think is really important is that South Bend voices tell South Bend’s story, and I’m one South Bend voice, but not the only one,” Buttigieg said. “And so, especially in introducing ourselves to communities that don’t know us as well, making sure folks hear different voices from South Bend and hear from some of the African American voices who know South Bend’s story and who support me, is a very important part of how we introduce me and introduce our story across the country.”
But one of the problems with Buttigieg, said veteran South Bend council member Oliver Davis, is that he has always felt the need to have intermediaries guide his interactions with the black community. Previous Mayor Steve Luecke, the longest-serving in the city’s history, never needed that help, said Davis, a three-term African American council member.
“One of the things that I appreciated about our mayor before is that he’d just show up at an African American church by himself. He didn’t have to be introduced to African Americans. He didn’t need his entourage to do that,” said Davis, who has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden over Buttigieg. “Pete doesn’t have that type of relationship with people. When you have that type of relationship, you don’t need the introduction. After eight years, he still needs it.”
Buttigieg’s complicated relationship with South Bend’s African American community first got thrust into the national spotlight last summer amid the fallout of the police shooting death of Eric J. Logan, a black robbery suspect who authorities say was armed with a knife.
Neither the officer’s body nor vehicle cameras recorded the incident, which only ratcheted up distrust by some black residents toward the police department and inflamed long-standing racial tensions in the northern Indiana city of roughly 100,000 people. Buttigieg spent a week off the campaign trail, working to address the issue, which included an emotional town hall meeting in which several African American residents and activists sharply criticized the mayor’s leadership.
If the Logan shooting, which remains under investigation, first brought national attention to the topic, Buttigieg’s lagging poll numbers with black voters have only reinforced the scrutiny. While polls in the predominantly white early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire show Buttigieg atop the field, several surveys in South Carolina, the first state with a majority black electorate to vote in the primary, have shown Buttigieg trailing far behind.
The most recent polls in the state have placed Buttigieg’s black support at 3% and 0% while two recent national surveys both show him at 2% among African American voters. The South Bend mayor has cast the matter as an issue of familiarity, saying that the more he introduces himself to black voters, the more support he will receive.
In recent days that effort has included a series of testimonial videos from South Bend residents of color posted on Buttigieg’s website and shared by his official Twitter and Facebook accounts. The campaign features McBride, South Bend NAACP President Michael Patton, community organizer Gladys Muhammad, small business owner Marilyn Gachaw, professor and community leader Marisel Moreno, education leader Janet Evelyn and Arielle Brandy, the campaign’s Indiana state director.
“I think he’s aware of the needs of everyone, be it Latinos, be it blacks, be it whites,” Gachaw says in her video. Patton says Buttigieg is “intentional about being inclusive, and he’s open to diversity” in his testimonial. Muhammad calls Buttigieg “accessible to the community” and noted that he always attended the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration she plans every year.
“He talks to people. He’d go to the black churches,” Muhammad says as the video shows the mayor shaking hands with African Americans. “He’s real comfortable. He’s real.”
Muhammad recently organized a public gathering at a South Bend community center, which she said was aimed at countering the national narrative that Buttigieg doesn’t have black support in the city. The event, which was promoted by the campaign and attended by some of its staffers but not the mayor, drew about 50 people.
Patton, McBride and Muhammad all spoke at the event along with South Bend council member Karen White, who made it clear her appearance was to speak to the mayor’s work and not to give an endorsement.
Three of Buttigieg’s top campaign officials did not respond to requests for a list of South Bend elected officials and leaders who have endorsed the mayor. After this story was first published Monday, the campaign released a list of 11 former, current or soon-to-take-office elected officials in South Bend endorsing Buttigieg. Three are African American: McBride, current city clerk Dawn Jones and former clerk Kareemah Fowler.
Of the city’s current nine council members, four of five white members have endorsed the mayor for president (the fifth is a Republican) while only one of its four black members, McBride, has publicly backed Buttigieg. Of the council members who will take office next month, McBride remains the only one of three black members to back the mayor.
At the hourlong community event, black leaders talked about Buttigieg’s work for the city, but they frequently were interrupted by a small group of Black Lives Matter protesters, one of whom took a microphone from McBride and declared the entire event “a farce.”
Buttigieg’s communications director responded by blaming the interruption on supporters of Bernie Sanders (one of the protesters reportedly wore a Sanders hat), leading the Vermont senator’s campaign to denounce any such conduct at campaign events.
“It shows kind of where politics has come to, especially for somebody to interrupt an African American woman who was speaking about her truth and in her experience,” Buttigieg said of the event. “But 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.”
The South Bend event and campaign videos coincided with Buttigieg’s recent farewell address to the city council ahead of his handpicked successor and former chief of staff James Mueller taking over as mayor next month.
In his speech, Buttigieg ticked through an array of improvements and programs that have transformed South Bend from a “dying city” to a “beta city” that serves as a “national model for innovative practices.”
The mayor highlighted efforts to provide more affordable housing in predominantly African American neighborhoods and the conclusion of a recent disparity study that resulted in the city setting a goal for women-owned and minority contracting at 15%, up from the current 12%. He noted setting aside $1 million to help people repair their homes and his well-known “1,000 properties in 1,000 days” program that razed scores of vacant homes in a bid to revitalize neighborhoods. Buttigieg also referenced officers now being required to wear body cameras and undergoing better training practices but acknowledging “we still have a long way to go” in improving trust between residents and officers.
On the campaign trail, Buttigieg’s pitch to black voters focuses less on the “comeback decade” of South Bend under his stewardship and more on his “Frederick Douglass Plan” to address systemic racism by spending heavily to bolster the education, home ownership and entrepreneurship of African Americans while advocating for fairer policing and criminal justice reform.
Davis, the longtime council member and Buttigieg critic, said if the mayor cared so much about those priorities, he would have done more to address them as mayor before running for president.
“It would have given him more credibility on the issue, because he would have had a diverse team of people, including four African Americans on the city council, working on it,” said Davis, who lost a Democratic primary bid for mayor this year. “That would have helped him with the issues he’s having in South Carolina.”
His fellow council member McBride spent three days in South Carolina as a campaign character witness for Buttigieg.
When a voter in Allendale asked what Buttigieg would do for their low-income community, McBride volunteered an answer.
She noted that in her district, new homes are being built and the city has broken ground on a pair of parks. She also mentioned the mayor’s work to improve minority contracting, provide Wi-Fi in low-income areas, and increase the minimum wage for city workers from $7.50 an hour to $10.10 an hour and $30,000 per year for full-time workers.
“Those are just a few examples, and I can talk more in detail, about what he has actually done in South Bend that he can do nationwide,” McBride told the room of black voters.
During a break between campaign events, McBride said in an interview that the steps Buttigieg has taken on issues affecting black residents in South Bend show he’d have a similar commitment as president. McBride said it’s important for people like her to speak up to change some of the negative perceptions around black voters and his candidacy.
“I’m on this trip, talking about my experiences because a lot of people haven’t said much. And that’s their right — they don’t have to and can let him tell his own story,” McBride said. “But there is a small group of people who have been talking, and they have painted a picture that all minorities are not behind Pete. And that’s just not an accurate depiction.”