On Saturday, Pete Buttigieg left Las Vegas, Nevada, where he came in third in the Democratic caucus, and flew to Colorado for a rally at the Crowne Plaza Denver Airport Convention Center in Aurora. He now turns his attention to South Carolina, the next state in the primary where support among black voters will be key to winning.
But if Saturday’s late-night rally in Colorado’s most diverse city is any indication, the former mayor from South Bend, Indiana still has work to do to win over black voters. In a crowd of thousands of people, most of them white, many African American voters interviewed said they were still unsure about Mayor Pete.
“I want to see him do something. I want to see him in the community engaging with people — and not so much being a mouthpiece,” said Saundra Robinson, a 65-year-old from Denver, who says her 25-year-old nephew died from gun violence. “My patience is wearing thin. The invitation said 8:30. It’s 9:02. That’s strike one.”
Buttigieg’s biography appeals to a wide range of voters. Young people at the rally said they like him because he’s a liberal that their more moderate parents might like. They like that he’s a former Navy Reserve intelligence officer calling for an end to endless wars as in Afghanistan, where he was deployed in 2014. They like that he brings his husband, Chasten, whom he married in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. James in South Bend, on stage and talks about religion and God.
During a question-and-answer period of the rally, 9-year-old Zachary Ro’s question was pulled from a bowl reading, “Thank you for being so brave. … Would you help me tell the world I’m gay, too?” Buttigieg’s team invited Ro on stage and, in front of thousands of people and television cameras, Buttigieg said, “I don’t think you need a lot of advice from me on bravery.” Buttigieg came out much later in life when he was 29 years old and running for his second term as mayor.
When it comes to his appeal among people of color, the picture is more complicated.
Some Latinos in the audience praised Buttigieg for his multilingualism. When he called for protecting Dreamers and ending family separations at the U.S. border with Mexico, people started chanting “sí se puede.”
“He actually knows the president of Mexico’s name,” said Nathaniel Ramos, a 33-year-old from Commerce City. That, in addition to his fluency in various languages, Ramos said, “shows that he has an intellectual curiosity.”
African Americans at the rally were less enthusiastic. They worried about Buttigieg’s record, having fired South Bend’s first black police chief and overseeing the city when black people were being arrested at disproportionately high rates for marijuana possession. He’s polling around 4% among African Americans.
Rey Cole, Marcus Robinson and Jamila Mantwi, who were among the handful of African Americans in the crowd, said they wanted to hear him acknowledge his record or speak to issues they care about, specifically gun violence.
“Here’s your chance to woo me,” said Cole, 47, who is from Aurora. He said his fiancee, Amy Cammack, invited him. “I think there are a lot of black people who are on the fence. Look at the crowd.”
Robinson, 64, who is from Denver, said he’s still undecided. He said he watched a handful of people of color drop out of the Democratic primary, among them Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Among those left on the mostly white slate, he said he likes the liberal billionaire Tom Steyer for his stance on climate change. But he said he’s not enthusiastic. “No one is speaking to me right now,” he said.
“There’s six of us here. Maybe eight. That doesn’t bode well for us,” he said. “Here, it doesn’t feel good. And this music is killing me.”
“I think it’s just a matter of tapping into the community roots,” said Mantwi, 38, who is from Denver and who came to the rally to support Buttigieg. She said she wanted to hear him talk about discrimination in the workplace and gun violence.
During his speech, Buttigieg spoke generally about many of these issues. He said most Americans want to ensure that one’s race has no bearing on health, wealth, education or relationship to law enforcement. He mentioned the STEM school shooting, saying the Second Amendment should not be used to block action on gun violence. He touched on the issue of racial and economic inequality, mentioning his Douglass Plan, named after the black social reformer Frederick Douglass. That plan includes a range of criminal justice and public health reforms, including legalizing marijuana and abolishing private federal prisons.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of the Frederick Douglass initiative,” Robinson said after the rally, standing at the edge of the crowd. He said the plan gives his community something to grab on to. But it’s still not enough.
“You’ve got to walk the walk in the community to get a vote,” he said.
Robinson mentioned the former mayor of Denver Wellington Webb. “Wellington had boots on the ground and Wellington was walking. If Mayor Pete did the same thing here in the city, if he walked all of our communities, I think it’d be different.” Webb is endorsing the former mayor of New York Mike Bloomberg.
Buttigieg’s visit came on the heels of Bernie Sanders’s and Amy Klobuchar’s and preceded Elizabeth Warren’s, who will be in Denver on Sunday. By Sunday, Buttigieg was on the move again and headed to Virginia, according to a spokesperson with the campaign. Then off to South Carolina.