COLUMBIA, South Carolina — Melissa Thompson says she doesn’t care that South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg is gay, but says she does care about his record on race in Indiana.
Mr. Buttigieg has been on the rise in Iowa and New Hampshire but that momentum has yet to spill over into South Carolina. The prevailing storyline here has been that his push to become the nation’s first openly gay president has turned off black voters.
But Ms. Thompson said blaming his struggles with black voters on his sexuality is “to do us a disserve.”
“He has a history in his town of how he treated black people that had nothing to do with his sexuality,” she said. “I don’t care who he is married to, or whatever. That has got nothing to do with it.”
Mr. Buttigieg has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 Democratic presidential race, emerging as the front-runner in Iowa and New Hampshire — a pair of predominantly white states that kick off the nomination process in early February.
In South Carolina, though, he has failed to gain traction, namely among black voters who comprised over 60% of the 2016 Democratic primary electorate.
The latest South Carolina poll, conducted by Quinnipiac University, showed Mr. Buttigieg with the support of 6% of voters — putting him well behind former Vice President Joseph R. Biden at 33%, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts at 13%, and Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont at 11%.
Perhaps most glaring, though, was the poll have him zero support among black voters. A Monmouth University survey released late last month showed him garnering just 1% support among South Carolina black voters.
Mr. Buttigieg, meanwhile, has been scrutinized for his relationship with the black community during with tenure as South Bend mayor — including over a lack of diversity on the police force and his decision to fire a black police chief.
The racial tensions were further inflamed after South Bend police officer shot and killed Eric Logan on Father’s Day — sparking protests and leading Black Lives Matter activists to call for him to resign.
It has cast a shadow over his ability to court black voters in South Carolina and elsewhere and led his rivals to question whether he could recreate the Obama coalition of young and minority voters.
For his part, Mr. Buttigieg has run a radio ad in South Carolina vowing to “tackle systemic racism wherever we find it until your race in this country has no bearing on your health, or your wealth, your life expectancy or your relationship to law enforcement.”
In the last debate, he said he welcomes “challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don’t yet know me” and said he has as mayor “lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that is built up over centuries but been compounded by policies — policies from within living memory.”
He also said in that debate that while he doesn’t have the experience of being discriminated against based on the color of his skin, he has experienced “feeling like a stranger in my own country” because of his sexuality.
“Turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me working side by side, shoulder to shoulder making it possible for me to be standing here wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day even if they are nothing like me in their experience,” he said.
The message received mixed reviews from black voters in South Carolina.
“I didn’t really get it,” said Shemonia Lee, a Democratic voter. “How could you be a stranger in your own country when you are a white male? How could you?”
Ms. Lee also questioned whether Mr. Buttigieg could make history.
“If we are not ready for a female to be president, can you imagine a first man? Can you imagine that?” she said, adding that his record is more concerning than his sexuality. “He needs to clean up his own state. That makes him attractive to me. Clean up there and then come back and try to get my vote. Right now, no.”
Sandra Robinson, however, credited Mr. Buttigieg’s attempts to connect with black voters by relating his experience.
“He was actually savvy enough and smart enough not to go too far with it,” she said. “That is a tricky line when you say ‘I feel the same thing you feel as black folks in America, I know your injustice. I know what it is like to be one of those people who are treated a certain way.’”
“He didn’t go all the way. So he didn’t pretty good with that, he walked a fine line,” she said. “Did it make a difference with me? No, but I think he did good.”
Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.