Rolling out his racial justice plan, Pete Buttigieg claimed support from 2 prominent black South Carolina officials. They didn't back it.
While gathering support for Pete Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan for Black America, the mayor’s campaign reached out to prominent black South Carolinians to lobby them to publicly endorse the plan, eventually listing three as top backers. Two, it turns out, had said no, and the campaign rolled them out as public supporters anyway.
The Douglass Plan was touted by the campaign in late October with three major supporters -- South Carolina Rep. Ivory Thigpen, South Carolina Democratic Party Black Caucus Chair Johnnie Cordero, and Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Devine.
All three were taken aback when the campaign rolled them out as public backers. Devine told me she thought the campaign was “intentionally vague” in the way it was rolled out so that people would think she had endorsed Buttigieg, when she hadn’t. The other two, Thigpen and Cordero, told me they specifically told the campaign they did not want to endorse it, but had their names added anyway.
My story, with the invaluable help of Intercept researcher W. Paul Smith, is here: https://theintercept.com/2019/11/15/pete-buttigieg-campaign-black-voters/
Pete Buttigieg Touted 3 Major Supporters of his Douglass Plan for Black America. They Were “Alarmed” When They Saw It.
Pete Buttigieg has showed remarkable staying power in the Democratic presidential primary, with the most recent Monmouth University poll coming out of Iowa showing him in a lead that would have been shocking at the beginning of the campaign — and up 14 percentage points since August. This week, FiveThirtyEight wrote that Buttigieg "is experiencing something of a moment." But in another early state, South Carolina, Buttigieg has struggled to make inroads, persistently registering in the single digits. The South Bend, Indiana, mayor polls close to zero nationally with African Americans, faring no better with that vote in South Carolina, a liability that he knows will thwart his nomination if he can’t turn it around.
In July, he released his campaign’s chief piece of policy outreach to black voters, called “The Douglass Plan: A Comprehensive Investment in the Empowerment of Black America.” The plan covers everything from criminal justice reform to public health care, education, and beyond. It proposes using federal contracting rules to increase the amount of contracts going to minority- and women-owned firms to 25 percent, and offers student loan deferment and forgiveness to Pell Grant recipients who go on to start businesses that employ at least three people.
Buttigieg has strived mightily to win support among the black community, especially on his home turf. His firing of South Bend’s first black police chief when he entered office in 2012 set off protests at the time, and Buttigieg wrote in his memoir that the controversy “affected my relationship with the African-American community in particular for years to come.” This past June, in the middle of his presidential campaign, Buttigieg returned home after a police officer gunned down a black man in South Bend. An exchange between a black constituent and Buttigieg at a tense demonstration has dogged his campaign ever since.
“You’re running for president, and you want black people to vote for you?” the woman said. “That’s not going to happen.”
“Ma’am, I’m not asking for your vote,” Buttigieg responded.
When pressed on the lack of black support, Buttigieg and his campaign have made repeated references to the Douglass Plan, named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass. “Our response to those who ask what our agenda for black America is, is the Douglass Plan.” Buttigieg said recently on CNN. “It is the most comprehensive vision put forward by a 2020 candidate on the question of how we’re going to tackle systemic racism in this country.”
To build support for the plan, Buttigieg and his staff lobbied prominent black South Carolinians to endorse it, arguing that they could back the plan without endorsing Buttigieg, in order to strengthen the cause of racial justice. The Washington Post reported on Monday that “Buttigieg persuaded hundreds of prominent black South Carolinians to sign onto the plan even if they are not supporting Buttigieg himself.”
Along with his release of the plan, his campaign directed consultants to convene focus groups with undecided black voters in South Carolina. The resulting research memo, finalized in late July, concluded that Buttigieg’s sexuality was a “barrier” to winning support among black voters. The memo was leaked to the press this fall. Though the campaign has since denied that it was the source of the leak, the initial article about the memo, published on October 22 by McClatchy, includes on-the-record quotes from the Buttigieg campaign — the type that customarily accompany a story that a campaign cooperates with.
Three days later, the Buttigieg campaign began promoting a list of 400 South Carolinian supporters of his Douglass Plan in emails to reporters and posts on social media.
Buttigieg traveled to South Carolina to spread awareness of the plan. The supporters were rolled out in a press release and open letter published in the HBCU Times — which focuses on “positive news related to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Listed at the top of the press release were three prominent supporters, Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Devine; Rehoboth Baptist pastor and state Rep. Ivory Thigpen; and Johnnie Cordero, chair of the state party's Black Caucus.
“There is one presidential candidate who has proven to have intentional policies designed to make a difference in the Black experience, and that’s Pete Buttigieg,” read the open letter released along with the plan. “We are over 400 South Carolinians, including business owners, pastors, community leaders, and students. Together, we endorse his Douglass Plan for Black America, the most comprehensive roadmap for tackling systemic racism offered by a 2020 presidential candidate.”
The blowback came immediately. Devine, who has not endorsed a candidate yet in the presidential election, told The Intercept that she did not intend her support for the plan to be read as an endorsement for Buttigieg's candidacy, and believes the campaign was “intentionally vague” about the way it was presented.
“Clearly from the number of calls I received about my endorsement, I think the way they put it out there wasn’t clear, that it was an endorsement of the plan, and that may have been intentionally vague. I’m political, I know how that works,” she said. “I do think they probably put it out there thinking people wouldn’t read the fine print or wouldn’t look at the details or even contact the people and say, ‘Hey, you’re endorsing Mayor Pete?’”
Asked if she knew if any of the black supporters of the plan were also supporters of Buttigieg, she said she wasn’t sure. “The only ones I really knew were me and Rep. Thigpen,” she said. “I don’t know many — actually, now that I think about it, other than the folks working on Mayor Pete’s campaign, I don’t know of any local elected officials who have endorsed him yet.”
Thigpen, meanwhile, has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, and was startled when he learned the campaign had not only attached his name to the plan, but also listed him as one of three prominent supporters atop the letter.
“How it was rolled out was not an accurate representation of where I stand,” Thigpen told The Intercept. “I didn’t know about its rolling out. Somebody brought it to my attention, and it was alarming to me, because even though I had had conversations with the campaign, it was clear to me, or at least 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. But what I had talked about was potentially giving them a quote of support in continuing the conversation, because I do think it’s a very important conversation.”
Thigpen said he thought rolling out the big list of supporters was intended to show broad support in the black community, despite the reality. The letter was published out of the blue, Thigpen said. “I actually had not circled back to give them a quote, so I was alarmed and very much surprised to see, particularly, the headline, as such, because I do think it muddies the water, I do think it was a misrepresentation, and it easily could have confused a lot of people as to where I stood. That was, from the very beginning, concerns that I expressed,” he said. Thigpen said he reached out to the Sanders campaign to let them know what had happened, and aides there said they would talk to the Buttigieg campaign.
Cordero is no longer listed publicly as a supporter. When The Intercept reached him for comment, he explained that he had never endorsed the plan, nor has he endorsed Buttigieg. “I never endorsed that plan. I don’t know how my name got on there. No, that’s not true: I know how my name got on there,” Cordero began, before explaining that Buttigieg had emailed him the plan and asked for feedback, which began a conversation with Buttigieg's staff.
“I had some difficulties with it,” Cordero said. “It’s entirely presumptuous,” Cordero went on, before pausing to ask if this reporter is black, gauging how honest to be about the racial dynamics. Told that no, the reporter is white, but he nonetheless decided not to spare his feelings: “I’m not going to change what I’m going to say. It’s presumptuous to think you can come up with a plan for black America without hearing from black folk. There’s nothing in there that said black folk had anything to do with the drafting of that plan. Now I like Pete, please don’t get me wrong. I’ll help him in any way I can. I think he’s an honest man, I think he’s a decent man, I think he has integrity. I’d like to see him keep running. But you don’t do that. Those days are over and done with. We’re tired of people telling us what we need. You wanna find out what we need? Come and ask us.”