Joe Biden is announcing that another round of black leaders in Indiana will support his presidential campaign, a show of force as the former vice president tries to establish himself with black voters and fend off a challenge from Indiana’s own Pete Buttigieg.
The campaign told BuzzFeed News that 14 more black leaders in the state would support Biden for president, including Robin Winston, former Indiana Democratic Party state chair; Jerald Harkness, a filmmaker; Lacy Johnson, an Indianapolis attorney and Democratic Party insider; Nathaniel Lee, a former state officeholder; and Tammi Davis, a Gary, Indiana, official. They joined the outspoken South Bend city councilor Oliver Davis, who made national headlines with his support of Biden last month.
Others included in the endorsement announcement: the Rev. Dr. Michael J. Bluitt, general secretary of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Indiana; Ronald Covington, president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Indiana; the Rev. Dr. Fitzhugh Lyons, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Indiana; Eugene White, former Martin University president; and community leaders Carl Drummer, TyJuan Garrett, Jeffrey Johnson, Theron Williams, and Charlitta Winston.
Ordinarily such endorsements — from a Republican state that has little influence on the Democratic primary — might not rate much attention in a national presidential election. But Buttigieg’s rivals and critics trace his struggles to appeal to black voters to Indiana, where he presides as mayor over South Bend, a city that’s roughly a quarter black. Davis’s endorsement last month helped seed that narrative.
“We are building a broad coalition of support to create a path to the nomination that reflects the diversity of our party and our country,” said Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz. “We are thrilled and honored to have the support of these respected leaders from Indiana, who are helping us assemble the strongest campaign in the Hoosier State and the country.”
What some of the Indiana supporters really like about Biden, they said, was his four decades in the US Senate.
“It was really how he handled the Clarence Thomas hearings,” Harkness said, pointing to Biden’s role as the chair of the Judiciary Committee during those 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings. “I think that I just remember thinking that he did his best to be objective and fair to everybody. He came across [to me] like the adult in the room,” Harkness said. (Biden’s handling of those hearings, in which a black nominee faced sexual harassment accusations from a black woman, was a point of major criticism of his candidacy early in the primary.)
Harkness said that that was part of the reason why he had actually liked Biden over any of the candidates the last time Biden ran, in 2008; it was Biden, he said, who seemed to have the types of genuine relationships with Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham that would serve the country well going forward.
Buttigieg allies in South Bend have pushed back on the perception that he has poor relationships with black leaders there. Another black city council member, Sharon McBride, recently accompanied Buttigieg on a campaign swing through South Carolina — where a majority of the Democratic electorate is black — and endorsed him along with other city leaders.
On Thursday, Black Lives Matter’s South Bend chapter is planning a conference call with reporters to discuss Buttigieg’s record on policing issues. As mayor, he has come under fire for demoting a black police chief and, in the wake of an incident where a white officer shot and killed a black man, for his oversight of the police department. Some of the Black Lives Matter activists in South Bend are open supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, another Democratic candidate for president.
Members of the group disrupted a forum this month called by Buttigieg’s black allies to emphasize their positive experiences with him.
Oliver Davis told BuzzFeed News over the phone Wednesday that he objects to how Buttigieg handled his business with older black figures in the existing political establishment, whom he implied that Buttigieg ignored, but without any hard evidence. He did, however, cite an example in one of Buttigieg’s rhetorical formulations about how black voters in South Carolina voters still have to get to know him.
“No,” Davis said. “You’ve got to get to know them.”
Davis said the country was in the kind of "storm" that Biden endured throughout his Senate career, dating back to Biden’s personal family loss just after he won his first election to the chamber.
“When you're in a storm, you want to make sure your pilot has been through a storm. You don’t want someone to have to be learning when we're in a storm," Davis said.
He used what he characterized as Buttigieg’s haste with black voters as yet another sign of a character flaw: “Pete is trying to sow seeds and harvest them at the same time.”
Lacy Johnson, one of the new endorsers, is a rarity in politics outside of Delaware: a black Democrat who actually met Biden before Barack Obama walked into the picture. The campaign describes Johnson as a “longtime” figure in state Democratic politics. “I've seen the ups and downs,” he said. “We need the Obama coalition again. And I think Joe Biden is the one [who] can do that.”
Buttigieg, Johnson said, had courted him while running in the past. “I was one of the early ones,” said Johnson, calling the mayor a “bright person — extremely bright.” After last hearing from Buttigieg in 2016, he said it had disappointed him that he hadn’t heard from him again, “until very recently.”