From Black women to Black LGBTQ millennials, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s messages on economic opportunity and gun violence are resonating with the Democratic Party’s base—Black voters.

The openly gay Democrat running the city of South Bend, Indiana, was a lesser-known 2020 presidential candidate until his acclaimed town hall performance on CNN on March 10. Since then, the midwestern mayor has captured the attention of Black voters and David Axelrod, the former campaign manager for Barack Obama.

Buttigieg,
37, contends that every candidate “brings a different profile and a different
life experience,” but the conversation around intersectionality and his
personal experience as a member of a marginalized community helps him find “new
sources of solidarity” across identity groups.

South
Bend might not be known for having a large Black population. But, according to
the U.S. Census Bureau, the Black community represents over a quarter of the
city’s population. 

Before
“Pete for America” officially launched, Mark Meier ran the “Draft Mayor Pete”
political action committee in an effort to bolster nationwide name recognition
for the Afghanistan War veteran. Meier who like Buttigieg is a millennial
member of the LGBTQ community, said on the PAC’s website that Buttigieg is a
uniquely suited candidate to bring together Democrats from every part of our
big tent party.”

While
Meier does not equate the experiences of Black Americans to members of the
LGBTQ community, he thinks there is a “common thread” of systemic pressures and
systemic influences that keep both groups from being “fully represented.” Meier
said he views the similar political experiences of the two groups as a reason
why Buttigieg is a relatable option for Black voters.

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“As
someone who is a part of a fairly prominent, marginalized community—the LGBTQ
community—he understands what it’s like to be in a community that hasn’t seen
full representation and hasn’t been truly accepted within the national
political environment,” said Meier, whose PAC shut down once Buttigieg formed
an exploratory committee. He has continued to support the mayor by hosting
events such as a watch party for the candidate’s CNN town hall appearance. 

Buttigieg
underscored that his gay identity exposed him to shared yet different
experiences of the Black community.

“As
a member of one minority community, it doesn’t mean that I personally
understand the experiences of others,” Buttigieg told me by phone. “I have no
idea what it is like personally, for example, to be a transgender woman of
color. But I know that I need to stand up for her, just as others have stood up
for me.” 

Markeysha
Davis, a professor of Africana studies at the University of Hartford in
Connecticut, said she is considering multiple candidates but first encountered
Buttigieg when an online political ideology test matched her with the mayor.
Since learning more about the candidate, Davis has reflected on his chance of
connecting with Black voters.

“I
think that where Black people might struggle with him is around the idea of his
sexuality,” Davis said. “It’s a barrier, and that’s because of the
long-standing fear and ignorance prevalent in how the Black community, in
particular, approaches conversations about sexuality—especially in terms of public
leadership.”

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Davis
wants the conversation surrounding Buttigieg’s candidacy to move toward his
political experience rather than his sexual orientation. “Sexuality will always
be an important part of our identities, but it shouldn’t be something that is
pointed to [in order to] marginalize somebody or make them different,” she said.

Guy
King is another Black voter considering the mayor’s bid. King is a former
Capitol Hill staffer and an openly gay Black man who was impressed by
Buttigieg’s town hall. As a devoted Christian who was raised in the deep South,
King said he sees a pathway to victory for Buttigieg in the South Carolina
primary, despite the possibility of socio-religious obstacles involving the
mayor’s same-sex marriage. “He can definitely rally interval parts, from the
right side and left side, of our party,” he said. “If he can rally
conservatives in Indiana, he’s got a shot at win conservatives around the
country.”

All eyes on South Carolina

The
South Carolina primary can offer an early projection of a general election
since the state does not require voters to register by party. And, of the early
primary and caucus states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina has a
significant Black population—nearly 30 percent.

Buttigieg
is focused on engaging Black voters during a visit to the state on Saturday. “Anyone
who takes the Black vote for granted is making a mistake,” Buttigieg told me.
“And, anyone who neglects the Black vote is making a mistake.”

Considering
the state’s large Black community, some political consultants view Black Sens.
Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California as the favorites.
South Carolina New Democrats President Phil Noble said both candidates could
dominate the ballot box in the absence of a campaign by former Vice President
Joe Biden. “You’ve got two very attractive African-American candidates and both
of them are making a serious play in South Carolina,” he said.

However,
South Carolina-based pollster Carey Crantford warned that Democrats in South
Carolina tend to hold a more socially conservative stance on issues than other
areas of the country. “Whatever racial composition that you see among
Democratic primary voters here, you find that a great deal of conservatism as
part of the Democratic approach to social issues, religion and society in
general,” he said.

Crantford
thinks it’s too early to make predictions on the primaries, but said Biden’s
candidacy would shift the focus in South Carolina. “The entry of Biden in South
Carolina will change the stack significantly,” he said.

The Holy Battle Ground

One
area of social conservatism that could present a challenge for the Buttigieg
campaign is the Black evangelical community’s stance on same-sex marriage.

Historically,
the church has served as a political center for Black Americans since as early
as the abolitionist movement. And, according to the Pew Research Center, Black
millennials are more religious than other millennials—showing the church can
still wield influence with young Black voters.

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In July 2018, a study from the center found that 38 percent of Black millennials said they attend religious services at least weekly, compared with just a quarter of millennials of other groups.

Leaders
of Black churches in South Carolina said they were open to allowing an openly
gay and married candidate to attend Sunday services.

The
Rev. Melvin
Andrew Davis is the senior pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
Many presidential candidates made stops at Davis’ church ahead of the primary.
In January 2019, Booker and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) attended an event at
Zion Baptist in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Hillary Clinton spoke
at the church in 2016.

Zion Baptist’s
constitutional bylaws are opposed to same-sex marriage. As an individual, Davis
is opposed to same-sex marriage, but he said his church has gay, lesbian and
bisexual members in attendance at weekly services. In regards to hosting openly gay
candidates, Davis referenced a quote from the Bible: “The Bible says ‘who shall
ever will, let them come,’” he said. “I think my congregation would receive the
individual as a person, period.”

The Rev. Joseph Darby is senior pastor at Nichols Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The AME church Darby belongs to does not allow its pastors to marry same-sex couples. However, Darby “acknowledges that not everybody in America shares [his] faith” and said he “understands the equal justice under the law.”

Darby
welcomes all presidential candidates at his church and said his members would
not be “judging their personal lives; they would be judging their merits as
candidates.”

South
Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the Democratic Whip, said the Black church is an
important stop for candidates who are looking to draw the support of Black voters,
but not the only location with social capital in the community. “The church
will certainly be influential but [it] will not be the only influence, and I
argue that it may not be the dominant influence,” he said.

Clyburn
pointed to barbershops and beauty shops as additional options for candidates to
consider on the campaign trail.

Staying focused on Politics

Clyburn also cautioned Black voters to resist focusing on emotionally charged social issues in the political space. Clyburn views the discussion of reparations for slavery as an example of social distraction that has dominated the presidential election coverage. “I try to tell people those issues are literally planted to get you chasing rabbits,” he said.

The
Rev. Byron Benton is the pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in
Charleston, South Carolina. Benton echoed Clyburn’s position on Black voters;
he cautioned against allowing social issues such as same-sex marriage to
dominate the conversations surrounding 2020 campaigns. “For too long, people
have highlighted social issues and got us riled up emotionally while they
robbed us politically,” he said. “While that happens they turn around and make
policies and decisions that are detrimental to our lives.”

Buttigieg
said he has continued to be welcomed into Black churches in his city and thinks
it is important to engage around common issues experienced by the Black and
LGBTQ communities.

Jessica A. Floyd is a candidate for her master’s degree at Medill-Northwestern University focusing on politics. You can follow her on Twitter @JessAFloyd.





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