Pete Buttigieg has showed remarkable staying power in the Democratic presidential primary, with the most recent Monmouth University poll coming out of Iowa showing him in a lead that would have been shocking at the beginning of the campaign — and up 14 percentage points since August. This week, FiveThirtyEight wrote that Buttigieg “is experiencing something of a moment.” But in another early state, South Carolina, Buttigieg has struggled to make inroads, persistently registering in the single digits. The South Bend, Indiana, mayor polls close to zero nationally with African Americans, faring no better with that vote in South Carolina, a liability that he knows will thwart his nomination if he can’t turn it around.
In July, he released his campaign’s chief piece of policy outreach to black voters, called “The Douglass Plan: A Comprehensive Investment in the Empowerment of Black America.” The plan covers everything from criminal justice reform to public health care, education, and beyond. It proposes using federal contracting rules to increase the amount of contracts going to minority- and women-owned firms to 25 percent, and offers student loan deferment and forgiveness to Pell Grant recipients who go on to start businesses that employ at least three people.
Buttigieg has strived mightily to win support among the black community, especially on his home turf. His firing of South Bend’s first black police chief when he entered office in 2012 set off protests at the time, and Buttigieg wrote in his memoir that the controversy “affected my relationship with the African-American community in particular for years to come.” This past June, in the middle of his presidential campaign, Buttigieg returned home after a police officer gunned down a black man in South Bend. An exchange between a black constituent and Buttigieg at a tense demonstration has dogged his campaign ever since.
“You’re running for president, and you want black people to vote for you?” the woman said. “That’s not going to happen.”
“Ma’am, I’m not asking for your vote,” Buttigieg responded.
When pressed on the lack of black support, Buttigieg and his campaign have made repeated references to the Douglass Plan, named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “Our response to those who ask what our agenda for black America is, is the Douglass Plan.” Buttigieg said recently on CNN. “It is the most comprehensive vision put forward by a 2020 candidate on the question of how we’re going to tackle systemic racism in this country.”
To build support for the plan, Buttigieg and his staff lobbied prominent black South Carolinians to endorse it in order to strengthen the cause of racial justice. The Washington Post reported on Monday that “Buttigieg persuaded hundreds of prominent black South Carolinians to sign onto the plan even if they are not supporting Buttigieg himself.”
Along with his release of the plan, his campaign directed consultants to convene focus groups with undecided black voters in South Carolina. The resulting research memo, finalized in late July, concluded that Buttigieg’s sexuality was a “barrier” to winning support among black voters. The memo was leaked to the press this fall. Though the campaign has since denied that it was the source of the leak, the initial article about the memo, published on October 22 by McClatchy, includes on-the-record quotes from the Buttigieg campaign — the type that customarily accompany a story that a campaign cooperates with. A spokesperson said that the campaign only cooperated after McClatchy had already obtained the memo.
Three days later, the Buttigieg campaign began promoting a list of 400 South Carolinian supporters of his Douglass Plan in emails to reporters and posts on social media.
Buttigieg traveled to South Carolina to spread awareness of the plan. The supporters were rolled out in a press release and open letter published in the HBCU Times — which focuses on “positive news related to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Listed at the top of the press release were three prominent supporters, Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Devine; Rehoboth Baptist pastor and state Rep. Ivory Thigpen; and Johnnie Cordero, chair of the state party’s Black Caucus.
“There is one presidential candidate who has proven to have intentional policies designed to make a difference in the Black experience, and that’s Pete Buttigieg,” read the open letter released along with the plan. “We are over 400 South Carolinians, including business owners, pastors, community leaders, and students. Together, we endorse his Douglass Plan for Black America, the most comprehensive roadmap for tackling systemic racism offered by a 2020 presidential candidate.”
The blowback came immediately. Devine, who has not endorsed a candidate yet in the presidential election, told The Intercept that she did not intend her support for the plan to be read as an endorsement for Buttigieg’s candidacy, and believes the campaign was “intentionally vague” about the way it was presented.
“Clearly from the number of calls I received about my endorsement, I think the way they put it out there wasn’t clear, that it was an endorsement of the plan, and that may have been intentionally vague. I’m political, I know how that works,” she said. “I do think they probably put it out there thinking people wouldn’t read the fine print or wouldn’t look at the details or even contact the people and say, ‘Hey, you’re endorsing Mayor Pete?’”
Asked if she knew if any of the black supporters of the plan were also supporters of Buttigieg, she said she wasn’t sure. “The only ones I really knew were me and Rep. Thigpen,” she said. “I don’t know many — actually, now that I think about it, other than the folks working on Mayor Pete’s campaign, I don’t know of any local elected officials who have endorsed him yet.”
“It was clear to me, or at least I thought I made it clear to them, that I was a strong Bernie Sanders supporter — actually co-chair of the state, and I was not seeking to endorse their candidate or the plan.
Thigpen, meanwhile, has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, and was startled when he learned the campaign had not only attached his name to the plan, but also listed him as one of three prominent supporters atop the letter.
“How it was rolled out was not an accurate representation of where I stand,” Thigpen told The Intercept. “I didn’t know about its rolling out. Somebody brought it to my attention, and it was alarming to me, because even though I had had conversations with the campaign, it was clear to me, or at least I thought I made it clear to them, that I was a strong Bernie Sanders supporter — actually co-chair of the state, and I was not seeking to endorse their candidate or the plan. But what I had talked about was potentially giving them a quote of support in continuing the conversation, because I do think it’s a very important conversation.”
Thigpen said he thought rolling out the big list of supporters was intended to show broad support in the black community, despite the reality. The letter was published out of the blue, Thigpen said. “I actually had not circled back to give them a quote, so I was alarmed and very much surprised to see, particularly, the headline as such because I do think it muddies the water, I do think it was a misrepresentation, and it easily could have confused a lot of people as to where I stood. That was, from the very beginning, concerns that I expressed,” he said. Thigpen said he reached out to the Sanders campaign to let them know what had happened, and aides there said they would talk to the Buttigieg campaign.
Johnnie Cordero is no longer listed publicly as a supporter. When The Intercept reached him for comment, he explained that he had never endorsed the plan, nor has he endorsed Buttigieg. “I never endorsed that plan. I don’t know how my name got on there. No, that’s not true: I know how my name got on there,” Cordero began, before explaining that Buttigieg had emailed him the plan and asked for feedback, which began a conversation with Buttigieg’s staff.
“I had some difficulties with it,” Cordero said. “It’s entirely presumptuous,” Cordero went on, before pausing to ask if this reporter is black, gauging how honest to be about the racial dynamics. Told that no, the reporter is white, he nonetheless decided not to spare his feelings: “I’m not going to change what I’m going to say. It’s presumptuous to think you can come up with a plan for black America without hearing from black folk. There’s nothing in there that said black folk had anything to do with the drafting of that plan. Now I like Pete, please don’t get me wrong. I’ll help him in any way I can. I think he’s an honest man, I think he’s a decent man, I think he has integrity. I’d like to see him keep running. But you don’t do that. Those days are over and done with. We’re tired of people telling us what we need. You wanna find out what we need? Come and ask us.”
“The long and the short of it was they never sufficiently answered my questions, so I never actually endorsed the plan. They went ahead and used my name.”
Cordero said he repeatedly asked Buttigieg’s staff for details on how the plan was developed. “What I was talking back and forth with them about was, who drafted the plan? I know Pete didn’t draft the plan. I’m sure he had his advisers do it. But I wanna know who was involved in this plan such that you can claim that you speak for black America. The long and the short of it was they never sufficiently answered my questions, so I never actually endorsed the plan. They went ahead and used my name,” Cordero said.
He said he did not complain directly to the campaign, but the campaign may have gotten word of his dissatisfaction. “I didn’t bother. Why? I don’t want to get involved in what we calling a pissing contest to be honest,” he said. “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, I’m the chair of the Democratic Black Caucus, and I want all candidates to run, I want the biggest field possible, that’s how we get the best leadership. So I’m in a position where I don’t want to look like I’m going after anybody in particular and I didn’t want — I’m just telling you because you asked.”
Cordero said that he didn’t want to seem like he was targeting Buttigieg. “I’m not gonna make a stink out of it. I don’t want to harm his campaign, and I don’t wanna look like I’m harming his campaign,” he said.
Indeed, he said, he was recently asked to come on CNN and talk about Buttigieg’s sexuality, but said that it was of no concern to voters in South Carolina. “I don’t care what people are telling you, we’re not that small-minded,” he said he told the cable host. “Nobody cares who he’s married to. We wanna know if he’s the kind of person who can carry the message and if he’s going to be an effective president. They got me off in three minutes. They don’t want to hear that. They thought I was gonna come on and trash him. I’m not trashing anybody, I’m sorry.”
Aside from not supporting Buttigieg, many of the South Carolinian signees share another quality, as well: They’re not black.
The campaign hasn’t publicly claimed that every supporter of the plan listed is African American, though it wouldn’t be hard to draw that implication: It was published in the HBCU Times, and the bylines and top-listed supporters are all black. To be sure, a multiracial coalition would be needed to push the Douglass Plan through Congress, but the campaign didn’t say that, either.
After publication, the Buttigieg campaign said it had sent the plan to the list of supporters and asked them to opt out if they did not want their name included on the list. That email also specified that the list was meant to represent “over 400 Black South Carolinians.”
“I think the way they put it out there wasn’t clear, that it was an endorsement of the plan, and that may have been intentionally vague. I’m political, I know how that works.”
Whatever the intent, a review of the 422 names on the list of supporters finds that at least 297 of them appear in the South Carolina voter file. Not all states ask for information on race when registering to vote, but, unsurprisingly, given its history of voter suppression, South Carolina does. The campaign only published the names of the supporters, without additional identifying information, which makes finding them in the voter file a challenge, given some have common names like James Wilson and Mary Williams. But for 184 of them, the voter file lists either one name, or lists multiple people, all of whom self-identify as white — so at least 42 percent of the entire list is white. And that means 62 percent of the 297 names that can be reliably checked are white.
The Buttigieg campaign said that they have never claimed the list was exclusively prominent black South Carolinians, and that it’s important to have a multiracial coalition to support the end goal of racial justice. “Pete believes we need to dismantle systemic racism in order to deliver justice for Black Americans and make our country whole,” a Buttigieg spokesperson said. “Which is why, as we said the time of its release, we’re proud the Douglass plan has earned the support of many South Carolinians, including many African-Americans. Pete will continue to talk about the Douglass Plan wherever he goes, regardless of the audience, as there are many communities of Americans committed to eradicating racial inequity.”
Devine agreed with the value of a multiracial coalition. “I have no idea how they gathered supporters or what they told people,” Devine said. “But personally I do think it’s a good idea to have a cross-section of people who support the plan, because any implementation of the policies that they have in there is going to require broader support.”
Thigpen said he believes the campaign knew what it was doing, and knew the impression it was giving off. “I do think the way it was rolled out, it gave the impression, or the characterization, of them having broad support potentially, listing myself and others at the top of it,” Thigpen said. “But then when I know the conversations I had had, and how they used my conversation, for you to tell me there were other persons on there listed in one way, when that wasn’t really how they were, would not surprise me.”
Told that roughly half of the list of supporters were white voters, Cordero laughed. “Really?”
Meanwhile, of those 297, seven are repeated; one of them appears three times. According to a review of public record databases and social media sites, multiple names on the list appear to be from people who do not live in South Carolina. One person seems to not live in the United States at all but in São Paulo, Brazil.
Two others may be badly misspelled at best, as they don’t appear anywhere online or in voter databases. The rest, which add up to 125, can’t be found in the voter file.
The argument that Buttigieg’s lack of popularity had to do with black bias against the LGBTQ community continued in November, when Buttigieg campaign spokesperson Lis Smith picked a fight with MSNBC commentator Zerlina Maxwell on Twitter. Maxwell had posted, “I am offended that some folks in the media are covering Mayor Pete like he can win when he’s at zero with the base of the Democratic Party. BLACK PEOPLE.”
The ensuing firestorm led spokesperson Nina Smith to post a thread condemning the suggestion that the Buttigieg campaign believed homophobia was an obstacle to winning the black vote. By “other voices,” she said, she was referring to a viral tweet from Boy George. And again, she touted the plan: Once voters learn about the Douglass Plan, she said, they are more receptive to Buttigieg.
Ryan Grim is the author of the new book “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”
Update: November 15, 2019, 10:00 a.m.
This piece has been updated to include an email presented by the Buttigieg campaign after publication that showed the campaign giving the list of supporters a chance to opt out and specified the list was meant to represent “over 400 Black South Carolinians.”
Update: November 15, 2019, 11:55 p.m.
The Buttigieg campaign sent a statement expanding on its process for building the list of supporters:
Our campaign is working to build a multi-racial coalition, and we sought and received input from numerous Black policy experts and advisers to create a comprehensive plan to dismantle systemic racism: the Douglass Plan. We asked a number of Black South Carolinians, as well as South Carolinians from many backgrounds, to support the Douglass Plan, and we are proud and grateful that hundreds agreed to do so.In the HBCU Times op-ed and in communications with the press, we’ve been clear that not every supporter of the plan is Black, and have never claimed otherwise in any public communication. We never gave the impression publicly that these people were endorsing Pete, only that they supported the plan. After they indicated their support, we reached out to people multiple times giving them the opportunity to review the language of the op-ed and the option to opt-out. We did hear from people who weren’t comfortable being listed and we removed them.Pete will continue to talk about the Douglass Plan wherever he goes, regardless of the audience, as there are many communities of Americans committed to eradicating racial inequity.