Editor’s Note: Arick Wierson is an Emmy Award-winning television producer and former senior media adviser to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He currently advises political and corporate clients in the United States, Africa and Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter @ArickWierson. Kwame Jackson is a leadership strategist, nationally renowned speaker and television commentator who often analyzes issues of race and diversity in politics and business for global clients. Kwame was the runner-up on Season 1 of NBC’s “The Apprentice.” You can follow him on Twitter @kwameinc. The views expressed in this commentary are their own; view more opinion at CNN.
There is no denying it. Pete Buttigieg has emerged as one of the most mediagenic personalties of the 2020 Democratic primaries. Not since Barack Obama has an unknown pol emerged on the biggest stage in politics so quickly and forcefully. The well-spoken, Harvard-educated Rhodes scholar and Navy veteran has risen in recent polls and his fundraising hauls are impressive – worthy of a top tier candidate that America should be taking seriously.
But standing between Mayor Pete and the Democratic nomination is his Achilles Heel: black voters. Last week, the challenges he must overcome to prove he can galvanize African American support were on full display, following a police shooting of an African American man in Buttigieg’s hometown of South Bend. It was the latest incident in an already tense relationship between the city’s African American community and its police department – one which has become less diverse since Buttigieg was elected mayor.
The conventional wisdom in Democratic presidential politics is that no nominee can expect to lock up the party’s nomination without gaining traction with a significant slice of the black vote – particularly among those African Americans in key early voting states in the South. And when it comes to this, the narrative dominating the media’s coverage of the Buttigieg campaign is that, so far, African Americans are having difficulty embracing the 37-year-old, openly gay phenom.
Many seem to be gravitating toward more traditional and well-known candidates like Biden or the two other African American candidates in the race, Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
As reported by Politico, a recent poll showed that only 21% of African Americans are enthusiastic or comfortable with Buttigieg.
Another poll conducted by the Economist found that only 1% of African Americans intend to vote for Buttigieg in the primaries. But the most important statistic out there is that, according to the Politico poll, nearly one in two African Americans still have never even heard of the mayor from South Bend; this week’s debate stage will give Buttigieg a major opportunity to introduce himself to this important voting block.
Much has been made of the suggestion that Buttigieg’s tepid acceptance among African Americans is a reflection of Black America’s uneasiness with an LGBTQ candidate. To be sure, some leaders from influential black churches have been vocal in their derision of the gay rights movement, and many black voters are indeed heavily influenced by their historic and cultural ties to their pastors and congregations. Some academics, citing the community’s long-standing fear and ignorance about the question of sexuality as it relates to public leadership, agree that Buttigieg’s sexuality might be a barrier to more widespread acceptance by some African Americans.
But unpacking black attitudes toward public leadership and homosexuality is a complex question that goes all the way back to the civil rights movement. Even Bayard Rustin, who was arguably the organizing genius behind Martin Luther King Jr.’s pivotal “March on Washington,” was marginalized in the history of civil rights movement – a fact many have viewed as a byproduct of his homosexuality.
Buttigieg is smart enough to know he can’t simply write off black voters in the primaries lest he face a destiny similar to Bernie Sanders, who also struggled with African American voters in the 2016 primaries. Buttigieg’s efforts to reach out to African Americans on popular black media outlets and have a meeting with Rev. Al Sharpton, for example, show that he understands how critical African Americans are to his national political aspirations.
In 2016, about 12% of all voters, and 25% of Democratic primary voters were black. The majority of Democratic primary voters in the 2016 primaries in early voting states such as South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia were black.
So when Buttigieg hits the debate stage in Miami, he’s going to have to address head-on the concerns that African American voters have about him.
Here are five things he needs to do to win big with black voters in the debates:
1.) Pass the “woke” test. The unfolding racial tension back in his native South Bend has unexpectedly given Mayor Pete a natural platform to insert himself into the war of words that has been going on between Biden and Booker in recent days, as well as the debate on Capitol Hill regarding reparations for the descendants of slaves. Buttigieg needs to seize the opportunity that the debate stage will give him to tackle head-on America’s relationship with its slavery past, race relations and community policing. Buttigieg needs to come across as ‘woke’ – sincere, empathetic and someone willing to go the distance to fight for equality.
2.) Connect with black veterans. Buttigieg is the only top tier candidate with a record of service in the military, and with nearly 2.5 million African American veterans across the United States, this should be a natural constituency for Buttigieg to engage by connecting around shared experiences and service.
3.) Be vocal about his faith. The road to black southern primary state support goes through the black churches, and Mayor Pete needs to use the debate platform to share with black voters his views on the role of faith in the community, something he has been quite vocal about. He can draw upon his own faith journey of how he came back to God as a young adult, and now see it as a pillar of his life – something that might resonate with church-going black voters.
4.) Talk about pocketbook issues. Issues that affect families’ bottom lines such as access to affordable healthcare, college access, and jobs with benefits are the biggest issues for African Americans, according to Politico. Earlier this year, Mayor Pete laid out his agenda for black Americans; he needs to stay focused on these bread-and-butter issues central to African American voters when on stage in Miami.
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5.) Commit to the South. The Iowa caucuses are still over seven months away, and Buttigieg now has an ever-expanding war chest. Buttigieg needs to commit on stage to setting up extensive campaign operations in southern battleground states, like South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia, and to spending a significant amount of his time on the campaign trail in those locations.
Will America have a President Pete? Not without the black vote. But this week’s debates provide a ripe opportunity for Pete Buttigieg to make some much-needed inroads with African American voters.