Buttigieg faces scrutiny over record on race

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to supporters Tuesday at a primary night election rally in Nashua, N.H.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is facing a more intense spotlight on his past leadership on issues of race and policing as he tries to translate his strong showing in Iowa and New Hampshire into support in more diverse states.

Buttigieg, who spent eight years as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has tripped up in recent days as he was grilled about his record, including the racial disparity in marijuana arrests in South Bend and decisions that led to him having no African American leaders in his administration during a crucial stretch of his tenure in a city where more than a quarter of residents are black.

The 38-year-old is trying to address those questions with a flurry of advertisements featuring black supporters and an appeal to minority voters who, like many in their party, are focused on which candidate is best positioned to beat President Donald Trump in November.

"Before anybody cares what's in your plans, they want to know if you're a serious contender, and I think up until we had the results we did here in Iowa and New Hampshire, it was difficult for us to prove," Buttigieg said Wednesday on PBS. "Now the process of proving it is underway."

Buttigieg, who was virtually unknown in national politics a year ago, essentially tied Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Iowa and placed a close second in New Hampshire. But his strong showings in those opening contests hasn't scared off other more moderate candidates, in part because Buttigieg's ability to court nonwhite voters is unknown.

Tracy Arnold, a 61-year-old former police office from Chattanooga, Tennessee, which votes on March 3, said Buttigieg "didn't seem to be as active when it came to black people's concerns," when he was mayor of South Bend. And he said he questions whether Buttigieg is sincere when he talks about criminal justice and inequality issues now.

"It makes you curious and somewhat suspicious," said Arnold, who is black. "You had an opportunity to do that when you were mayor, and your report card wasn't all that great."

Buttigieg's campaign is scrambling to address those concerns, particularly in South Carolina, where black voters make up about 60% of the Democratic electorate.

His campaign says it has 55 staffers in the state and has been running digital, TV and radio ads featuring black supporters from South Carolina and South Bend. South Carolina state Rep. J.A. Moore, who is black, endorsed Buttigieg this week, calling him "the only viable candidate to build a cross-racial, rural, urban and suburban coalition to win in November."

But as the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary nears, the former mayor continues to face questions about his record.

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