At a private fundraiser in California on Friday, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg suggested that black voters in South Carolina preferred former Vice President Joe Biden because of a perception of “familiarity,” even though Biden isn’t “the candidate with the best answers on the subject of race.”
Asked by a guest in attendance at a meet-and-greet event at Thunderbird Heights in Rancho Mirage how he anticipated “engaging the black community to get greater support,” Buttigieg said, “So what’s working for us best right now in engaging the black community is two things: First, substance. And secondly, engagement.” The private event followed a reception at the Andreas Hills Private Resort in Palm Springs, hosted by Rich Weissman, a former Bank of America executive.
On Biden, who has been leading the polls in South Carolina, Buttigieg said, “There’s one candidate who’s got a far and away lead in South Carolina. I actually don’t think it’s because it’s the candidate with the best answers on the subject of race. I think it’s because it’s the candidate who’s got the most familiarity.”
Over the last week, Buttigieg has surged in the polls in some early primary states. A poll last week from CNN and the Des Moines Register showed him with 25 percent among potential Democratic caucus attendees in Iowa, a 16-point jump from the same poll in September. He’s also seen a major increase in New Hampshire, where one poll released Wednesday has him pulling ahead of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Biden. While Biden is the overall frontrunner, with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Warren jockeying for second and third in recent national polls, the former vice president has recently lost ground in South Carolina and other early primary states, including Iowa and New Hampshire, in addition to Florida. According to a Quinnipiac poll released Monday, Buttigieg is polling at less than 1 percent among black voters in South Carolina, while Biden had 44 percent.
The South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s comments came the same day The Intercept reported that his campaign had falsely touted the support of prominent black Democrats in South Carolina for Buttigieg’s plan to tackle systemic racism in the United States. Buttigieg in July released “The Douglass Plan: A Comprehensive Investment in the Empowerment of Black America,” which calls for injecting capital into black communities, improving access to credit, and reforming both the criminal justice and health care systems. Buttigieg referenced the Douglass Plan at the fundraiser, calling it “as ambitious as the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe. But this time, to invest right here at home.”
Buttigieg has also faced warranted criticism for his handling of relations with the black community in South Bend. His decision to fire South Bend’s black police chief in 2012 set off protests, and Buttigieg backtracked, demoting him instead. The mayor later acknowledged in his memoir that the events “affected my relationship with the African-American community in particular for years to come.” Buttigieg returned to South Bend this summer after a police officer shot and killed a black man in June. At a demonstration, a black constituent told Buttigieg that black people wouldn’t vote for him. “Ma’am, I’m not asking for your vote,” Buttigieg replied.
Despite these strained relations, Buttigieg told the crowd in Palm Springs that he had the trust of black voters in his city, where he has been mayor since 2012. “The voters I talked to have felt not just abused by one party, but taken for granted by another,” he said. “And while years of work on the ground allowed me to earn the confidence of the black voters who know me best in South Bend — who returned me to office with a greater margin the second time around than the first — we don’t have years to get to know voters in a place like South Carolina.”
Buttigieg has been open about his failures when it comes to race, articulating a basic understanding of systemic racism in a way that some of his peers don’t, often to the surprise of his audiences. He pivoted to institutional racism on Friday, saying, “Our agenda — that is specifically relevant to black voters, but important for me to talk about with majority white audiences too — is the need to deal with institutional racism in our time,” Buttigieg said to mumbles of agreement from the audience. “And it’s all connected. We can’t just expect that in any individual policy area, you can remove a racist policy and replace it with a neutral one, and expect things to get better on their own. It doesn’t work that way. Because these harms compound over time. So our message — the cornerstone of our message is economic empowerment.”
Still, his track record shows — and he acknowledges — that he has not always delivered tangible results for the community he’s confident has his back.
The cost of tickets to Friday’s fundraising events ranged from $250 to $2,800; those who paid $1,000 or less were given access to the general reception with the mayor in Palm Springs, while those who paid from $1,500 to $2,800 got to attend a more private “meet and greet reception” in Rancho Mirage. Weissman, who was a senior vice president and director of marketing at Bank of America between 1992 and 1996, has contributed $850 to Buttigieg’s campaign so far, and he told The Intercept that he intends to max out at $2,800.
He said his support for Buttigieg came down to electability. A social scientist by training, he took it upon himself to study every presidential election for the past 70 years and found five factors that were present in each successful Democratic campaign.
“For me, it’s about winning in November,” Weissman said. He compared the mayor to former presidents John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, who were young, relatively new to national politics, represented a new demographic that people say is unelectable, had interesting spouses, and were calm, good-looking, and eloquent, he said. “They knew how to diffuse tension, they knew how to project a forward-thinking, optimistic, hopeful campaign.”
Weissman has also worked as an executive at U.S. Bank/Bancorp, and National Westminster Bank USA. He currently directs the Richard Norris Weissman Charitable Fund, which supports “organizations and activities that actively empower those groups under attack in the current environment of intolerance,” according to his website.
At Bank of America Oregon during the mid-1990s, Weissman urged consumers to use home equity loans to buy their cars. According to a report in the Sunday Oregonian during that year’s Portland International Auto Show on lenders tailoring auto loans “to meet needs of today’s borrowers,” Weissman said “loaning against the home in many instances [is] tax deductible.” Encouraging home equity loans was a strategy promoted by banks that increased borrower risk, opening up homeowners to the possibility of foreclosure as the prices of the homes they’d borrowed against began to fall. The number of home equity loans being issued has fallen sharply since the housing bubble burst. Asked if he would recommend home equity loans to consumers today, Weissman said it was “a complex issue,” and that they were appropriate for some but not all types of consumers.
In 2014, as president of the consulting firm DMA Corporation, Weissman advised bankers at the American Bankers Association’s National Conference for Community Bankers on how to employ strategies typically employed by larger institutions using consumer data to improve profitability by jacking up fees and prices for consumer loans. “We need to start looking at things like consumer lending,” Weissman told a group of bankers and consultants. “If you run the math based on the data, you may find that none of your consumer loans, for example, are profitable. Then you can increase your price point. This may cause some of your customers to leave, but at least the ones that stay will be profitable.”
When it comes to supporting Buttigieg, who “does not have his hands in the pockets of the billionaires or the PACs,” Weissman said he was prepared to go all in. “I’d give my house away — and I mean it — if indeed that would mean the end of Trump this summer.”