Buttigieg meets with Sharpton seeking inroads with black voters

Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegCastro hits fundraising threshold for December debate On The Money: Congress races to beat deadline on shutdown | Trump asks Supreme Court to shield financial records from House Democrats | House passes bill to explicitly ban insider trading NYT editorial board calls on Buttigieg to disclose details of work at consulting firm MORE met with Rev. Al Sharpton in New York City on Monday as the rising Democratic star sought the counsel of a civil rights leader who could help him make inroads with African American voters.

The South Bend, Ind., mayor has been surging in the polls and raising tens of millions of dollars in his bid for the White House, but there are questions about whether he can appeal to the black voters who will be critical in determining the outcome of the Democratic primary.

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Buttigieg has acknowledged that he needs to expand the diversity of his coalition. And he’s been on the defensive recently over decisions he made as mayor that critics have said negatively impacted communities of color. 

"The problem I have is some people find me, they come to my rally or event or fundraiser, but if I only talk to the people who come to me, it’s not going to be more diverse," Buttigieg told Sharpton.

"So you want to reach out," Sharpton said.

"I’ve got to," Buttigieg responded.

Buttigieg took the No. 3 train to meet with Sharpton at Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem.

The Democratic candidate ordered fried chicken, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese, at one point asking Sharpton if it was correct to eat the fried chicken with his hands.

Sharpton told him to get after it with his hands and noted that so far Buttigieg is the only candidate to take the train to Harlem to meet with him and the only candidate to say a blessing over his food before eating.

In their nearly 30-minute lunch, Buttigieg and Sharpton discussed criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization and voting rights.

Sharpton also said they discussed Buttigieg’s demotion of South Bend’s first-ever African American police chief and a housing policy that critics said resulted in minority families getting squeezed out of their neighborhoods.

That discussion happened in private, and it’s unclear how it went.

But Sharpton seemed impressed with Buttigieg, telling him he was not ready to endorse in the primaries but that their meeting was "good."

"I thought he was very much authentic," Sharpton said. "He seemed firm in who he was and what he represented. ... I think he showed today going right in the heart of Harlem that he intends to go for those votes."

Buttigieg and Sharpton spoke at length about Buttigieg being gay.

The South Bend mayor told the story of how he decided to go public with his sexuality after returning home from serving in Afghanistan.

"I didn’t know what the politics would be," Buttigieg said. "I felt like the city would stand with me. ... I just said who I was and tried to be treated like anyone else. There was some ugliness. But when primary day rolled around, I got 78 percent and then in the general election 80 percent, so it showed me most people didn’t care. They were supportive or didn’t care."

Sharpton told the story of how his sister had to deal with being black and gay and said there are some African Americans who have been not been as accepting as they could be of members of the LGBT community.

"This question of the religious right and homophobia, some of it in our community," Sharpton said. "It’s our responsibility. We need to deal with homophobia in the black community. You should be judged on your merits. We can’t fight against bigotry based on race if we’re going to be bigots based on sexual orientation."

Buttigieg and Sharpton also talked at length about politics and Buttigieg’s surprising rise in the Democratic field.

Buttigieg asked for advice for running in South Carolina, a key early voting state where black voters will be pivotal.

"The thing that is more important than anything is that people can tell if you’re sincere or acting and playing a certain role for a vote," Sharpton said. "I think if you’re committed to more than just the candidacy, if you’re running for a higher purpose, it gives you energy. ... People need to feel that you’re representing something bigger.”

Buttigieg laid out details of his campaign’s primary strategy, saying that even though fundraising has been "really strong," paying for statewide television in California would be prohibitive.

There are more delegates at stake in California than any other state, and voters there will cast ballots earlier in the primary season than in past elections.

Buttigieg said those dynamics make it all the more important to outperform in the four early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

"You’re really relying on that earned media bump that comes from doing well in the early states," Buttigieg said. "Beating expectations there helps propel us into the headlines at the right moment when the race goes national."