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The Memo: Buttigieg makes new pitch to attract black voters

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegJuan Williams: Clyburn is my choice as politician of the year 'Biff is president': Michael J. Fox says Trump has played on 'every worst instinct in mankind' Buttigieg: Denying Biden intelligence briefings is about protecting Trump's 'ego' MORE this week released an extensive plan aimed at alleviating the effects of “systemic racism” — but whether it can also lift his standing with black voters will be the key political question.

Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., has risen to prominence from relative obscurity since launching his campaign in mid-April.

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In national polls, he is almost always behind the Big Four — former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenLawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list GOP lawmaker blasts incoming freshman over allegations of presidential voter fraud Haaland has competition to be first Native American to lead Interior  MORE and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDespite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill Overnight Defense: Defense bill moving forward despite Trump veto threat over tech fight | Government funding bill hits snag | Top general talks Afghanistan, Pentagon budget Katie Porter in heated exchange with Mnuchin: 'You're play-acting to be a lawyer' MORE (D-Mass.), Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisMiddle East: Quick start for Biden diplomacy Hillicon Valley: GOP chairman says defense bill leaves out Section 230 repeal | Senate panel advances FCC nominee | Krebs says threats to election officials 'undermining democracy' Top intelligence official says China targeting foreign influence at incoming Biden administration MORE (D-Calif.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders press secretary: 'Principal concern' of Biden appointments should be policy DeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE (I-Vt.). But he runs ahead of ostensibly bigger names, including Democratic Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Policy center calls for new lawmakers to make diverse hires Dangerously fast slaughter speeds are putting animals, people at greater risk during COVID-19 crisis MORE (N.J.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Democratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Social media responds to Harris making history: 'I feel like our ancestors are rejoicing' MORE (N.Y.).

A major barrier for Buttigieg if he is seeking to become a serious contender for the nomination is his lack of support among black voters.

In two recent polls, from the Economist and Quinnipiac University, respectively, he scored 5 percent and 4 percent support among all Democrats but 1 percent and zero percent among black Democrats.

“I have not spoken to one African American who believes that any of his actions, or inactions, are malicious,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist unaligned with any 2020 candidate. “I think it would be best described as a blind spot.”

Buttigieg will be hoping that his new plan released Thursday, named The Douglass Plan after the iconic 19th century black leader Frederick Douglass, will help demonstrate that he has a real awareness of how racial disparities roil the nation — and concrete proposals to do something about them.

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The plan is lengthy and specific. It includes proposals on criminal justice — where Buttigieg proposes to eliminate federal jail time for drug possession offenses and ban private federal prisons — and on health care, education and entrepreneurship. 

It proposes, among other things, the creation of health equity zones and increased training for health professionals to reduce racial disparities in health care.

Another idea is an economic program under which the government would invest up to $10 billion within five years in businesses or programs run by entrepreneurs from minority or low-income backgrounds, with the aim of sparking the same level of private investment.

A Buttigieg campaign official told The Hill that the campaign had been “working on the plan for a number of months” in part because the candidate believes “there is a bigger conversation we’re having about race in the country.”

Buttigieg told MSNBC’s Craig Melvin on Thursday, “I do think it's very important for black voters to have an answer to the question they're always asking me on the trail, which is ‘How is your presidency going to make my life better and different in a way that's better than any of your competitors?’”

He added that, in addition to the measures aimed at elevating black Americans and their communities, “there needs to be a conversation with white America, with white audiences, about how none of us can or should be willing to live in a system where these kind of systemic racist dimensions persist.”

Buttigieg’s good intentions are not questioned by most Democrats, but the challenges he faces in ramping up black support are considerable.

For a start, Biden typically leads the field among black voters — a testament, most observers believe, to his loyal service to former President Obama and his familiarity on the national scene.

Harris, the most prominent black candidate in the race, has also started scoring highly with African American voters, especially in the wake of a debate performance where she took Biden to task for his attitudes toward school busing and Southern segregationist senators.

Buttigieg is hampered by his relatively low profile but also by two racial controversies that have afflicted South Bend — his firing of the city’s first black police chief and, in June, the fatal police shooting of a black man, 54-year-old Eric Logan.

Buttigieg returned to South Bend from the campaign trail in the wake of the latter event but faced a stormy town hall meeting where residents vented their frustrations at him.

Karen Finney, who served as a senior adviser to 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton offers congratulations over Elliot Page announcement Biden brushes off criticism of budget nominee Mellman: Mired in Partisanship MORE but is not affiliated with any candidate this cycle, noted that the two controversies were “the way in which many people in the black community first learned about Mayor Pete.”

Finney praised the plan Buttigieg issued this week but noted, as did other sources, that it is hardly enough to make up his deficit with black votes, absent other actions. 

“Putting forward this plan is obviously a very important step. He’s very thoughtful, and he speaks about these issues,” she said. “But he is going to have to do, not just show.”

Black Democrats aligned with other candidates are even more skeptical that Buttigieg can make quick progress anytime soon. 

Bakari Sellers, a former state representative in South Carolina who is supporting Harris, said, “His plan was admirable, to say the least, and I am glad he put forth one. But my response to him is, you have to meet voters where they are. There is no relationship, there is no familiarity, there is no trust.”

That idea, at least in broad terms, is something that the Buttigieg campaign seems to recognize.

“People are still getting to know him to a great extent,” said the Buttigieg campaign aide. “He was not well known across the country before he got into this race, so we have to spend time talking with folks, listening to folks and making sure they hear from Pete.”

The fear among others, however, is that the young mayor’s difficulty connecting with black voters becomes known as an adverse part of his political brand — and thus impossible to escape.

“Because there is this perception of him having a blind spot,” said Payne, “there is a higher bar for him to cross to disprove that narrative.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal watchdog accuses VOA parent company of wrongdoing under Trump appointee Lawsuit alleges 200K Georgia voters were wrongly purged from registration list Ivanka Trump gives deposition in lawsuit alleging misuse of inauguration funds MORE’s presidency.