Pete Buttigieg will speak at historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta on Monday as he tries to expand his appeal among black voters who are critical to winning the Democratic presidential primary.
The 37-year-old white mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is gaining momentum in the overwhelmingly white early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But unless his campaign can broaden its reach to minorities, he could stall in more diverse states such as Nevada and South Carolina.
Buttigieg has spent recent weeks reaching out to black Democratic figures, from well-known senior leaders to city and community level activists, and gets high marks for being an attentive listener. But the pressure is building to demonstrate he can win over black voters, who for now have largely sided with former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I applaud his efforts” to “build out his coalition,” said Nikema Williams, the first black woman to become Georgia Democratic Party chairwoman. Still, she said, he “has a lot of work to do.”
That makes his appearance at the historically black, all-male Morehouse especially important. Buttigieg plans to unveil a post-secondary education plan that would, among other things, dedicate $50 million to Morehouse and other HBCUs.
Julian Hemmings, president of the New Deal Democrats at Morehouse, said that when he mentions Buttigieg on campus, the response is mostly, “Who?” But then the 21-year-old senior tells them about the mayor’s identities as a gay man, a veteran and a Rhodes scholar and his classmates become intrigued.
“I think if he can emphasize who he is and where he comes from, he’ll have a chance,” Hemmings said. “I don’t know him, but he’s brilliant and I respect him.”
He said Buttigieg’s status as a gay man could help voters of color who have felt ostracized identify with him.
Buttigieg has risen into the top tier in Iowa, which hosts 2020’s first presidential caucuses, challenging his better-known rivals Elizabeth Warren, Biden and Bernie Sanders. Polls show similar traction for him in New Hampshire, home of the first 2020 primary and where he has built a robust campaign organization and traveled regularly in recent weeks.
Warren and Sanders are also struggling to woo black voters away from Biden.
Buttigieg has talked about systemic racism on the campaign trail and the debate stage, and unveiled a lengthy plan this summer aimed specifically at redressing generations of inequality in areas ranging from education to housing to health care. Buttigieg has spoken about his Douglass Plan — named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass — in front of white and minority communities.
But since entering the national spotlight, Buttigieg has drawn attention for his handling of race issues as mayor of South Bend, which has a black population of about 27%. Critics slammed him for firing the city’s first black police chief shortly after taking office, for his handling of blighted neighborhoods and for a recent police-involved killing of an unarmed black man.
Last week, his campaign faced fresh scrutiny for using a stock photograph of a black woman and her child on a campaign website, instead of images of people Buttigieg had met, and for listing among South Carolina Democrats who had endorsed the Douglass Plan a handful of people who said they had not given their permission to use their names publicly.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed to this report from Atlanta.