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.
“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.”
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.