DES MOINES — Both are moderate Midwesterners who have pitched their presidential campaigns on a promise to speak to the heartland voters who moved away from Democrats in 2016. Both come from mostly white states where black leaders have questioned their records on issues of racial justice. And both are polling at or near zero percent with black voters nationwide.
But unlike Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s struggles with black voters have received little attention — even as she pitches herself as the Democrats’ most electable candidate in the Midwest, and makes plans to continue her campaign beyond Monday’s Iowa caucuses.
In a Washington Post poll of black voters earlier this month, Klobuchar was at 0% to Buttigieg’s 2%. And while she has racked up endorsements from scores of current and former elected officials — among the most of any candidate in the race — just 18 are from people of color, most of them from her home state of Minnesota.
Now Klobuchar is facing criticism there this week over revelations about her decades-old prosecution of a black teenager. A group of black leaders in Minnesota called for her to suspend her campaign in light of an Associated Press investigation suggesting the 16-year-old boy Klobuchar put in jail for life may have been innocent.
The case highlights a stark reality for Klobuchar a few days before the first votes are cast in the presidential race: She has done very little in the course of her year-long, electability-focused campaign to win over the support of a key demographic in the Midwest — black Democrats.
Her home state’s two most prominent black politicians, Rep. Ilhan Omar and Attorney General Keith Ellison, endorsed Bernie Sanders. Outside of Minnesota and the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, she has scarce support from people of color, including just one elected official, California Rep. Linda Sanchez, who endorsed her Saturday. No black elected officials have announced their support for Klobuchar in other states.
Perhaps more significantly, Klobuchar faces serious hurdles to winning over black voters moving forward: She spent a chunk of her career as a tough-on-crime prosecutor and has been criticized for failing to prosecute a single killing by the police when she headed prosecutions in Hennepin County, Minnesota’s largest county.
The revelation of serious flaws in the case Klobuchar built against Myon Burrell, the teenager Klobuchar charged with the murder of an 11-year-old girl, Tyesha Edwards, in Minneapolis, is likely to cause a further issue for Klobuchar.
Klobuchar has repeatedly used Burrell’s prosecution to bolster her own political career — including during her first Senate run, when she cut an ad with Edwards’ mother, who said, “When our little girl, Tyesha, was murdered, Amy saw to it that those gang members were put away.” And she brought the prosecution up in a recent Democratic debate, where she cited the case to deflect criticisms that she had not been committed to racial justice.
“The cases that came to us, the African American community that came to us, they said there was no justice for their little kids,” Klobuchar said. She cited the killing of a boy named Byron Phillips.
“We found the shooter and we put him in jail,” Klobuchar said. “We did the same for the killer of a little girl named Tyesha Edwards who was doing her homework at her kitchen table and was shot through the window.”
An Associated Press investigation this week found evidence of serious inconsistencies and a lack of forensic evidence in the case against Burrell, who is now 33 and has maintained his innocence for 14 years, refusing any plea deals.
Klobuchar’s campaign told the Associated Press that she believed any new evidence in the Burrell case should be reviewed immediately, noting that Burrell had been tried and convicted twice of the murder.
The head juror in the case said Saturday that he regretted convicting Burrell in light of the investigation, telling the Associated Press, “I feel, for lack of a better word, that we were misled.”
Ruth Ann Gaines, one of handful of black legislators in Iowa and the first state representative to endorse Klobuchar, said she learned about the details of the Burrell case from campaign staff on Friday. “I think she’s gonna stand tall, stand firm, be honest, have integrity — and if things come up that can change the case, then go for it. This is a young man’s life that’s in jeopardy here,” Gaines said on Saturday of the push to look at new evidence. “I think she would be willing to maybe retract it. Maybe mistakes were made. Maybe things were overlooked. That doesn’t dissuade me from voting for her.”
Still, Gaines said she expects most black voters to stick with former vice president Joe Biden. “I think she’s picking up support in the black community — even in the last several days,” she said. “Our hope is among younger voters who are still out there making up their minds.”
Carlie Waibel, the campaign’s communications director, pointed to the recent endorsement of another black legislator in Iowa: Rep. Ross Wilburn. “It has become clear that as Senator Klobuchar visits more places and meets more people, her support grows — including with people of color,” Waibel said. “As our campaign continues to ramp up, we expect our support to continue to grow."
Black voters are a vital demographic in the Democratic primary — candidates simply can’t win without them — and are important in the Midwest during the general election, where high voter turnout among black voters in cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis are necessary for the Democratic nominee to be successful.
Klobuchar, who was reelected to a third US Senate term in 2018, has consistently won the support of black voters in Minnesota, a highly engaged voting block in the state. But the Burrell case has highlighted what some black leaders in the state say is a disconnect with the state’s black community.
“I would say that Amy Klobuchar does not have any real connection to the black community in [Minneapolis] or in Minnesota,” said Nekima Levy Armstrong, a community activist and civil rights lawyer who joined calls for Klobuchar to suspend her campaign and address the Burrell case.
“She has portrayed herself as a tough-on-crime prosecutor while working to appeal to mainstream white middle-class voters. But the reality is that Klobuchar did measurable amounts of harm to the black community when she was the lead prosecutor in Hennepin County,” Levy Armstrong said.
Klobuchar has also been criticized for failing to bring charges against a single police officer who killed a citizen in her eight-year run as the top prosecutor in Minnesota’s most populous county. There were more than two dozen police-involved killings in that period. Minneapolis police have long faced allegations of excessive force — leading to unrest that culminated in widespread protests over the 2015 killing of Jamar Clark.
Though Omar and Ellison endorsed Bernie Sanders, Klobuchar has been endorsed by several other black leaders, like St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Moorhead Mayor Johnathan Judd.
Wilburn, the Iowa legislator who endorsed Klobuchar earlier this week after his first-choice candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris, dropped out of the race, said he had seen Klobuchar prioritize issues important to people of color in her policies, and had put people of color in influential positions within her campaign, he said.
“Because of how she’s been listening, because of how she’s been reaching out to communities of color, I have confidence in her willingness and ability to take on criminal justice reform,” Wilburn said.
He had doubts, he said, about polls that showed Klobuchar at zero with black voters; in the past, he said, they had not accurately reflected the support of people of color. “There’s movement going on — word is getting out, and it’s not being reflected in polls.”
Buttigieg, who is courting similar voters as Klobuchar, has also made almost no inroads with black voters. Both come from states where black people account for just about 10% of the population. But unlike Klobuchar, he has faced a litany of headlines about his “struggles and stumbles.” He briefly left the campaign trail last summer to deal with an officer-involved shooting back home in South Bend.
For months, his campaign has sought in private and in public to deal with those struggles, though many of those efforts have been clumsy or failed altogether. He released a “Douglass Plan” focused on racial justice, a high-profile policy rollout attached to a list of endorsements from the black community in the key primary state of South Carolina — except some of the people on the list later said they had not actually endorsed the plan or were white.
This week, days before Iowa will kick off the nominating process on Monday, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published stories detailing his campaign’s extended efforts to allay concerns among staffers of color. Inside the campaign, according to the reports, some of those staffers said that senior Buttigieg officials were not receptive to their feedback.
Earlier this month, as nearly every other Democratic presidential candidate prepared to pause their campaigns in Iowa to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in South Carolina, black leaders in the state criticized Buttigieg and Klobuchar for initially planning to skip the visit. Later that week, both candidates moved to change their schedules at the last minute. The night before MLK Day, during a town hall in Waukee, Iowa, Klobuchar told the crowd she was headed to South Carolina later that night.
“Long story,” she told her supporters.
In a yearlong primary and a historically large Democratic field, Klobuchar has remained a competitive factor, polling just points below top-tier candidates like Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren. She is popular in northern Iowa, a region of the state that borders Minnesota, and her campaign has invested a large share of her staff, money, and time in the caucus state.
Earlier this month, Klobuchar earned endorsements from the New York Times editorial board and several early-state newspapers, prompting voters here to give her a second look. At recent appearances on the trail this week, she has repeatedly suggested that her campaign is built to last through Iowa and that she intends to compete in New Hampshire, the next state on the primary calendar.
Deborah Berry, a Buttigieg supporter who served for 14 years as one of Iowa’s few black legislators, said she felt Klobuchar’s appeal to people of color should be receiving equal scrutiny.
“I do feel like it’s unfair,” said Berry, who endorsed Buttigieg in December and defended his record on race in a phone interview on Friday. “He encourages people to speak out,” she said, asking why voters didn’t have similar questions for Klobuchar. “It’s really frustrating.”
Leslie Redmond, the president of the Minneapolis NAACP, who had joined calls for Klobuchar’s campaign to be suspended, raised another contrast: between Klobuchar and another former candidate who was a prosecutor, Kamala Harris.
“It is crazy to me that Kamala Harris got all of that national attention on her history as a prosecutor, and Amy Klobuchar as a white woman has been allowed to dance all over her own record,” said Redmond. “It is disrespectful. This is 2020.”
Black leaders in Minneapolis say they want Klobuchar to suspend her campaign in order to focus on helping Burrell, who is now 33.
“There’s no way that a person who represents good, old-fashioned Midwestern values can sit back silently and allow an innocent person to suffer inside the criminal justice system, knowing that they had a role in putting them there, and even using the case as a talking point in the debate,” said Levy Armstrong.
“Her response has been to try to deflect and put the focus on the current prosecutor. But if she’s going to take credit for putting this man behind bars in the first place, she needs to take responsibility now.”
Amy Klobuchar has endorsements from people of color in Iowa and New Hampshire. A previous version of this story misstated where she had endorsements. A previous version of this story also misstated NAACP president Leslie Redmond's name.