Updated: May 22, 2020
I felt like I was in an episode of Political Twilight Zone yesterday. Over the weekend, a senior staffer to Mayor Pete invited me to attend a “community conversation” with the mayor - talking about issues of particular importance to the African American community. As I was “undecided” and my concerns with Pete largely center on his connection (or lack thereof) to the black community, I decided to see for myself. My first interaction with the campaign, actually, occurred at a black tie event over the weekend. I met a couple of really impressive black women there who work for Pete. Against a narrative that Buttigieg has a “black community problem”, they made an impression. You won’t be surprised that they articulated a very impassioned and clear argument in favor of their boss. The optics going into the event yesterday seemed to be right. The mayor would be speaking about black issues a few days in front of the first Democratic Party contest (here in SC) to include African Americans in meaningful numbers. I have heard that the majority of SC Democrat voters are African American so this was a good place to expound on his plan. Moreover, the conversation was to be held in a black community (North Charleston), in a black church (Royal). Everything seemed to add up, right? It was actually all wrong. When I walked into the venue, I immediately noticed the square set up of chairs - with the podium in the middle. A staffer quickly shooed me to a seat right behind the podium. At first, I didn’t think too much about it until I looked up at all the cameras facing me. If you know me, you know that I’m certainly not afraid of being in front of the camera. LOL But - while I'm a fan, I’m not a Pete Buttigieg supporter and didn’t think it wide to be sitting there. I went to listen to his message. If I ended up a supporter, great. But that’s not where I was at that point.
I quickly scanned the room and noticed the most obvious aspect of the room. It was an overwhelmingly white crowd. All of the white folks were seated along the three sides of the square in front of where Mayor Pete would speak. The black folks - perhaps as much as 20% - were positioned behind. The political objective was obvious. At a speech designed to court the black vote, the campaign wanted to, needed to, present an energized, diverse crowd of supporters behind the candidate. I gently but quickly moved to a seat on the right side of the podium. Mayor Pete was great! He spoke more clearly and demonstratively on race - the problems and potential fixes - than any other candidate I’ve heard this campaign. His website says the following about his Douglass Plan, that it is: "a comprehensive and intentional dismantling of racist structures and systems combined with an equally intentional and affirmative investment of unprecedented scale in the freedom and self-determination of black Americans."
Powerful words! President Obama couldn’t hit the issue of race that squarely. Others in this campaign hadn't. Not Biden. Not Sanders. Not Warren. Not Klobuchar. Certainly not Bloomberg. The only problem was - and it was a big one - that he delivered the speech facing a pretty much all white crowd! Frankly, it was both surreal and bizarre! I scanned the faces of the folks in front of him - likely all hardcore Buttigieg supporters - and saw some mostly polite nods of approval here and there. It just seemed that there was only so far that those in front of him could go on this. I give Pete credit! He was laying down the facts, issues, and solutions. It was a strong presentation; it was just delivered to the wrong crowd. I wondered what he was thinking. That talk there would be like giving a speech about women’s health issues - in front of an all male crowd. It just didn’t make sense. I know he was thankful that the cameras were facing him and capturing only a piece of the reality of that room. Even though the dynamic was wrong, the televised optics still - likely - looked right; such is 21st century politics! In retrospect, it seemed like the speech might be a metaphor for how the SC Primary is going to go for Pete! Long on solid policy language and passion, short on execution and delivery! In the end though, I was impressed with Pete Buttigieg. I believe he has the resume, the intellect, the temperament, the policy positions and more to be of service to the country - in a variety of ways. It’s just not going to be as president in 2021. To be sure, Buttigieg is not going to be able to artificially manufacture a relationship with the African American community. To someone watching the highlights of this event, everything probably looked great! There were lots of smiling black and brown faces behind him. But the problem is that that support is likely as thin nationally as it was in the room last night. Keep a relationship with the African Americans who you have a connection to. Build on that. Deepen it. Continue to hone your Douglass Plan. Keep talking about it - even beyond the campaign. Make some more African American allies and fans in your home city and state. Get them speaking for you like the woman who closed the event last night. Do all those things and I know I, for one, would love to see you back next time! There’s no question that Pete Buttigieg is a "good guy" and that he can be a part of "the solution!"