As recent polls out of Iowa show South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg leading all Democratic primary candidates in the Hawkeye State, a controversy simultaneously unfolding in the South highlights a stubborn vulnerability in the Buttigieg campaign: his weakness among Black voters.
In a report from The Intercept on Friday, three Black Democratic officials in South Carolina said the Buttigieg campaign intentionally and misleadingly implied they were supporters of Buttigieg in various press releases and promotional items.
Columbia City councilwoman Tameika Devine, state representative Rev. Ivory Thigpen and Johnnie Cordero, chair of the state party’s Black Caucus, say although they agreed when asked by the Buttigieg campaign to offer their general support for the South Bend mayor’s effort to promote dialogue around racism and racial inequality, they were ultimately presented to the public as endorsers of a specific Buttigieg plan and the Buttigieg candidacy as a whole.
South Carolina’s population is nearly 30% Black, and will be one of the earliest to vote in the 2020 primary. Buttigieg has struggled to register support among Black voters since declaring his candidacy, attributed in part to claims he has been slow-footed in responding to issues raised by Black voters in his home of South Bend.
In an October press release touting Buttigieg’s “Douglass Plan” ― his plan to combat racial inequality ― and distributed through the HBCU Times, Devine, Thigpen and Cordero were listed as the most prominent signatories. But the three of them say their vague ― in some cases, tepid ― support for Buttigieg’s efforts was mischaracterized in order to benefit the candidate.
State Rep. Thigpen, who identified himself as a state co-chair for the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign, said he was alarmed when the Buttigieg campaign press release listed him as an endorser.
“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 told The Intercept.
Thigpen said the Buttigieg campaign listed him as a supporter without his permission after he told them he might agree to giving them a simple quote of support for continuing the conversation about racial inequality.
Devine, the city councilwoman, endorsed the Douglass Plan but hasn’t endorsed Buttigieg for president. She said the Buttigieg campaign was “intentionally vague” when disseminating her name as a supporter of the plan, and the result is that many people will wrongly think she’s settled on Buttigieg as a candidate.
“I do think they probably put it out there thinking people wouldn’t read the fine print or wouldn’t look at the details,” she said.
Cordero, the chair of the Democratic Party’s Black Caucus in South Carolina, said Buttigieg himself reached out to ask for Cordero’s input on the Douglass Plan. But when Cordero raised concerns with Buttigieg campaign staff that they hadn’t sought input from Black people while crafting the plan, he says they didn’t respond before listing him as a supporter.
“The long and the short of it was they never sufficiently answered my questions, so I never actually endorsed the plan,” Cordero said. “They went ahead and used my name.”
In response to The Intercept’s reporting, the Buttigieg campaign reportedly shared steps it has taken to allow people on the supporters list a chance to opt out.
“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,” the Buttigieg campaign said in a statement to HuffPost.
“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,” the statement continued. “We never gave the impression publicly that these people were endorsing Pete, only that they supported the plan.”
Buttigieg will appear in the next Democratic debate, scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 20.
This has been updated with a statement from Buttigieg’s campaign.