The Memo: Buttigieg makes new pitch to attract black voters

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegJayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Former health insurance executive: Current system is bankrupting country Biden leads Democratic primary field in Iowa: poll 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 BidenSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive White House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team MORE and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Former health insurance executive: Current system is bankrupting country The American disease and death bowls MORE (D-Mass.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisDemocrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' Parnas pressure grows on Senate GOP Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change MORE (D-Calif.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Former health insurance executive: Current system is bankrupting country MORE (I-Vt.). But he runs ahead of ostensibly bigger names, including Democratic Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerPatrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' Booker ahead of Trump impeachment trial: 'History has its eyes on us' Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial MORE (N.J.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandSanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change The Hill's Morning Report — President Trump on trial Overnight Energy: Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate impact | Republicans offer details on their environmental proposals | Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 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 ClintonDemocratic debates are magnet for lobbyists NYT editorial board endorses Warren, Klobuchar for Democratic nomination for president Sanders v. Warren is just for insiders 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 Trump’s presidency.