On a barren patch of land shaded by a single Southern live oak tree sits a cinder block building that serves as the Democratic headquarters of the smallest, poorest and most African American county in South Carolina.
Inside the modest structure, Pete Buttigieg stood under exposed beams and on a concrete floor partially covered with old scraps of orange carpet, eager to field questions as the first presidential candidate to visit Allendale County in more than a decade. Willa Jennings, the party’s 70-year-old chairwoman, didn’t start with a softball.
“I have to ask you this, OK? I hear a lot about how you don’t have support from African Americans,” she said. “I just want to know why they’re saying that about you."
The South Bend mayor responded that it was “so important to earn support from black voters,” noted that many candidates were polling at less than 5% with African Americans and chalked up his low numbers to being “new on the scene.”
Jennings wasn’t all that impressed. His excuse of not being known, she said, didn’t square with the fact that the well-funded candidate had been in the presidential contest for nearly a year.
“He’s very smart, but it might be too late for him to get to know my race," she said afterward. “The primary in South Carolina is in a couple months. I’m not sure he has the time.”
Buttigieg can pack white folks into high school gyms in Iowa and New Hampshire with the best of them, and he leads the polls in those key first two voting states.
But if the 37-year-old political star is going to broaden his appeal enough to win the Democratic nomination, he’s going to have to solve his struggles with black voters, one of the party’s key voting blocs.
There is substantial ground to make up ahead of South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary. The Palmetto State is the fourth in the nominating process and the first with a majority of black voters.
Buttigieg’s three-state swing through the Deep South this week marked a reboot of his outreach efforts, a trip made up entirely of small, intimate affairs. The goal was for the mayor to spend as much time listening to black voters’ concerns as he did on pitching his candidacy to them (not to mention having a drove of media on hand to document it all).
The move away from large rallies also reflects the reality that if Buttigieg were to hold such events in the states he visited — North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama — he’d be unlikely to draw many voters of color. That only would reinforce the national narrative that he can’t appeal to them.
Plenty of unwelcome developments and missteps for Buttigieg have helped fuel the perception.
The scrutiny ratcheted up in June, when a white South Bend police officer shot and killed a black burglary suspect armed with a knife, an incident that was not captured on the officer’s body or vehicle cameras. The incident flared racial tensions in the city, brought renewed attention to the mayor’s shaky relationship with some factions of South Bend’s black community and forced Buttigieg off the campaign trail for a week as he weathered the fallout.
Beyond that, his campaign has been criticized for misrepresenting the amount of support from black leaders for his Frederick Douglass plan, and the mayor was called out during the last debate for his team’s use of a stock photo of a Kenyan woman to illustrate the platform, which aims to battle inequities for African Americans.
This week, Buttigieg slowly tried to chip away at it all, one interaction at a time.
“We’re going to continue to make sure that we’re reaching out to constituencies that maybe won’t find their way to me on their own, that we’ve got to come to the table first, build that relationship, build that trust,” Buttigieg told reporters in Okatie, South Carolina. “I think that’s campaigning at its best, sitting down and having that conversation.”
Bowling for votes
At South Carolina State University’s recreational center in Orangeburg, Louisiana rapper Poppa Hussein’s party anthem “I’m Lit” bumped from the speakers as a dozen students line danced to the song, clapping, swaying and stepping in unison.
And then in walked Buttigieg, wearing a tie and quickly shedding his overcoat.
The students at the historically black university kept dancing as Walter Clyburn Reed, the grandson of U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, guided the Indiana mayor past the stack of “HBCUs for Pete” T-shirts and a dozen free pizzas to start making some introductions.
A topic that came up repeatedly among the students: Buttigieg’s comments in the last debate that seemed to compare the struggles of African Americans with his own experience as a gay man in America.
“While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me," the mayor said on the debate stage.
Those remarks fueled criticism from some African American leaders and activists, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, who called the comparison “naive.” Others have defended the essence of what Buttigieg said as placing a spotlight on the hardships that have been endured by the LGBTQ community in its battle for equality over the years.
During a debate party on campus, sophomore psychology major Jeremiah McFadden said the students he watched with physically recoiled when they heard the mayor’s comments. McFadden, who is gay, said he understood what the mayor was trying to say, and will vote for either Buttigieg or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“Of course he gets the struggle, because he’s part of the community, but it’s two totally different struggles, being a white gay man in America and being a black gay man in America,” said McFadden, 23. “Just focus on relating to the black community and not comparing struggles."
Charles C. Patton said he brought up the topic directly with Buttigieg as the two had a lengthy conversation seated near one of the scoring tables at the recreation center’s bowling alley.
“He asked me what I felt his issues were with the black community, or at least why he wasn’t connecting, and I told him I don’t think it’s the issue of him being gay, No. 1, because we really don’t care,” said Patton, 22. "I told him that a lot of the time when he is speaking on an issue of struggle or an issue of privilege, he speaks on his experience as a gay man and it almost sounds like he’s comparing the struggle of being gay to the struggle of being black. A lot of our people are like, ‘Nah, you can’t do that.’”
Patton’s advice: “I told him to tell us what you want to do for our community rather than telling us what you’ve gone through, because we’ve all gone through things, and that really doesn’t track with our community."
Buttigieg walked around campus with Patton, who is undecided among Buttigieg, Biden and Warren and holds the title of Mr. S.C. State, an elected ambassador of sorts for the university. The slow stroll was part of a tour that included various orchestrated photo opportunities at points on campus, including the site of the Orangeburg Massacre.
The 1968 incident occurred after 200 S.C. State students had protested racial segregation at a bowling alley in town. South Carolina Highway Patrol officers shot into a crowd of students, killing three and injuring 27 more. Buttigieg listened with astonishment as Cleveland Sellers pointed to the berm where he was shot as students scattered.
The mayor remarked how the incident has received far less attention than the 1970 shooting at Kent State, when four unarmed white students were killed and nine others wounded after soldiers with the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a mass protest of the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
“Kent State is taught," Buttigieg told S.C. State President James Clark and Sellers, the father of CNN commentator Bakari Sellers. “Everyone remembers Kent State, but I don’t remember Orangeburg ever coming up in school."
“The state put a lid on it and kept people from even discussing it,” Sellers told the mayor. “The two responses we’ve had in 52 years have been regret and, ‘We apologize,’ and that’s it. No investigation, no accountability."
Buttigieg shook his head in disapproval. In a nod to the genesis of the tragic shooting, Clark said S.C. State always will have a bowling alley on campus.
There were no obvious signs of that symbolism 15 minutes later when Buttigieg laced up some bowling shoes and picked out a ball with a golden hue. There was only the anticipation from students and assembled members of the media of whether the mayor might commit a political gaffe.
Fortunately for Buttigieg, he did not pull a Barack Obama, who famously bowled a 37 and failed to record a strike in seven frames on an Altoona, Pennsylvania, lane in 2008. Buttigieg knocked down eight pins on his first attempt, and after the pins were reset, came through with a strike on the second.
Buttigieg’s stop in Orangeburg, a central South Carolina city with a population of 13,000 that is three-quarters black, marked a significant contrast to his first visit seven months ago when he drew an overwhelmingly white crowd. A similar lack-of-diversity showed earlier this year when Buttigieg held a 1,000-person rally in Bronzeville, a historically black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, and when he visited North Charleston, South Carolina, in May.
On this latest swing through South Carolina, Buttigieg stopped in North Charleston to meet in a hotel conference room with about 20 black workers who have been pushing for a $15 federal minimum wage. The Rev. Thomas Dixon, a North Charleston pastor who attended the event, called it an improvement over the mayor’s previous visit.
“It’s really refreshing to see one of our presidential candidates come and sit in an intimate setting to hear from the people and actually talk to the people,” said Dixon, who said he’s not backing a candidate in the race. “We’ve had a lot of politicians who have decided that they are the voice of the people.”
In South Carolina, Buttigieg consistently has lagged behind in the polls.
A recent Quinnipiac University survey found Biden dominating with 33% support from likely voters, followed by Warren with 13%, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with 11% and Buttigieg with 6%. Among black voters, Biden had 44% support, compared with 10% for Sanders, 8% for Warren and 0% for Buttigieg, with 6 in 10 black voters saying they didn’t know enough about the mayor to have an opinion of him.
Buttigieg’s campaign is trying to change that with a $2 million ad buy in South Carolina timed to coincide with his trip to the state. That includes a TV spot in which the Afghan War veteran quotes phrases from the Bible and then states, “When I say we’re going to unify the American people, it doesn’t mean pretending we’re all the same,” as an image of him shaking hands with black parents tending to children and strollers flashes on the screen.
In addition to the ads, part of Buttigieg’s new approach is to engage in more conversations with voters and answer their questions in hopes of convincing them he’s the best candidate to take on Republican President Donald Trump next year.
In North Charleston, when a McDonald’s worker asked if he’d make it easier to join unions, Buttigieg said his goal is to double union membership and allow workers to organize across multiple employers. When a woman asked about Social Security, the mayor vowed not to cut it. And when a man asked about so-called right-to-work laws that weaken unions by allowing workers to opt out of paying dues, Buttigieg said he’d work to put an end to them.
The next day at a black-owned winery on the outskirts of Round O, South Carolina, Buttigieg answered questions from a small group of African American business leaders about his plans to provide universal broadband, prevent small-town hospitals from closing, create more jobs in rural areas and address the disparity in health care quality for minorities.
Stanley Campbell, a business executive who participated in the discussion, said it was clear Buttigieg had spent a lot of time thinking about difficult issues facing African Americans and it showed in the various policies he proposed. But, he said, whether the mayor has the skill set to communicate them to black voters may be another story.
“It is very difficult if you are not raised in, let’s say, the black community, then expand it to the black church, then expand it to the black schools, to gain all of that that might be necessary to make the connection, because you don’t even know that you’re not connecting,” said Campbell, 64, who lives in Virginia and runs a health care technology company.
Matt Bowman, a Navy veteran who started the Round O vineyard on his family’s fifth-generation farm, walked Buttigieg around the property, telling the story of how his family went from sharecropping to creating a successful business of their own. The mayor sampled some muscadine wine and walked through the 900-square-foot shotgun home, which included a living room shrine to the many members of the family who have served in the military.
“I was very impressed with his knowledge of the issues and impressed he took the time to come visit us,” Bowman said. “Anybody who leaves the campaign trail to come to these fireside chats and there’s not 1,000 people, which you know he can draw, it speaks volumes about Mayor Pete’s willingness to start small and grow.”
The entrepreneur said he remained undecided on who he’d vote for but said Buttigieg’s "visit moved me a long way.”
Ronald Wade wasn’t as moved. The 73-year-old farmer who lives in nearby Canadys and works at the vineyard, said it’s clear Buttigieg “is smart and knows what he’s talking about,” but said he’d be voting for Biden, citing his experience as Obama’s vice president.
“Pete is too risky to go up against Trump right now, but I think one day he will be president,” Wade said. “He needs to wait eight or 12 years. Right now, we need Biden.”
In Allendale, Jennings applauded Buttigieg for visiting such a remote and economically struggling area — the first presidential candidate to do so since John Edwards in 2008. With 8,903 residents, it is South Carolina’s smallest county with the state’s highest poverty rate of 37%, highest percentage of black residents at 73% and tied for the fewest residents with a bachelor’s degree at roughly 9%.
Jennings, the county’s Democratic Party chair, said she was impressed with Buttigieg’s intellect and particularly liked how he talked about protecting the voting rights of minorities, but she doubted the mayor could do much in a matter of weeks to pick off Biden’s black support.
“In Allendale, everybody loves Barack Obama, and although a lot of people may not know much about Joe Biden, because he was on that ticket, that’s good enough for them,” Jennings said. “And they’re going to vote that way. Regardless of what anybody else says, that’s what they’re going to do.”
When Jennings pressed Buttigieg on why she had heard so much on TV about his struggles with black voters, the mayor responded by alluding to a history of African Americans being overlooked.
“I know a lot of African American voters have felt, not only kicked around by the Republican Party, but sometimes taken for granted by the Democratic Party that knows how to come to church just before an election, but doesn’t always come back and engage with the community when it’s most needed,” Buttigieg said. “So I know that as somebody’s who’s new on that scene, I’ve got to earn that trust.”
Across the room on a makeshift plywood bookshelf sat a black-and-gold framed photo of two men who already have: Barack Obama and Joe Biden.