The sash she won in August 2018, making her the reigning Miss Black America, is back at the hotel because that outfit alone is like a giant name tag.
And besides, on this Saturday night she’s working her other volunteer job.
Every hug, every selfie, every “Hey! How are you?!” to a stranger is an opportunity to start a conversation about the presidential candidate who has earned her vote and very enthusiastic endorsement: former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Now, it is not news to anyone that Mayor Pete is struggling in this state where more than 60 percent of likely Democratic voters are black. He’s polling at around 4 percent among African Americans here (up from zero percent in November) and 9 percent overall, according to the latest Washington Post polling average.
And in this room with hundreds of attendees, maybe two of whom are white, mention of his name evokes a healthy round of Southern compliments.
“Bless his heart.”
“He’s trying his best.”
“He’s got a bright career ahead of him.”
“I plead the Fifth.”
Days later, Buttigieg would have a few big moments speaking about race on the debate stage, as the one candidate to acknowledge, “I’m conscious of the fact that there are seven white people on this stage talking about racial justice.” The next morning, he aired his first TV ad touting his Douglass Plan for Black America, which aims to invest in black businesses and create 3 million jobs.
In this room, though, you’d think this was a two-way race between billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent $18.7 million advertising in South Carolina and whom everyone here just calls Tom, and former vice president Joe Biden, who real estate agent Jeffrey Wilder, 56, calls “Barack Backup! Barack Backup!”
Richardson is working the room with the help of two young black women on Buttigieg’s staff. They are the Garys to her Selina, documenting her every move with their cellphone cameras and whispering the names of luminaries into her ear.
Oh! There’s Rep. James E. Clyburn, the House majority whip and a kingmaker in these parts. The crowd parts when he walks. He is polite to Richardson; after all, his grandson, Walter A. Clyburn Reed, is a paid organizer for the Buttigieg campaign.
And how does the elder statesman feel about the mayor?
“Well, um, he’s a candidate,” Clyburn says, barely suppressing a grin. “I tell my grandson, I never smacked him when he was a child, but I plan to do that in this contest.”
Clyburn endorsed Biden on Wednesday.
“Look, he just hasn’t lived long enough,” Clyburn says of Buttigieg. “He’s what, 37, 38 years old? People have long-standing relationships, and I don’t know why people think you’re going to walk away from these relationships.”
A few minutes later, Richardson is at her table, making new friends and scarfing down a side salad that she says is the best thing she’s ever tasted because she forgot to eat, she was so laser-focused on being Buttigieg’s surrogate.
This was a packed 68 hours for the pageant queen, including a speech at a Mexican restaurant, two galas, three canvassing launches, a church service and roundtables with black female voters. She’ll take a brief hiatus back home in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, before racing back to Charleston for the homestretch to Saturday’s primary.
It may seem incongruous, this 30-year-old urbanite glamazon, with her hair in waist-length twists, supporting the white mayor of a small city in Indiana, but the folks here take the reigning Miss Black America seriously.
Richardson joins the likes of former contestants Oprah Winfrey and Toni Braxton in representing the proud history of an institution that was started as an act of protest to celebrate black beauty and intelligence in 1968, held on the same night (and across the street from) the Miss America pageant. At that time, women of color were still barred from the predominantly white pageant’s stage. Curtis Mayfield wrote its theme song. The Jackson 5 used it to make their television debut.
Richardson, who will have the crown until a new Miss Black America is selected later this year, isn’t the only African American to endorse Buttigieg. He’s also got Abe Jenkins, son of Charleston civil rights hero Esau Jenkins; and Reggie Love, President Barack Obama’s former body man, who made waves when he chose the mayor over the vice president who’d worked with his old boss; and Gladys Muhammed, the 75-year-old head of the South Bend Democrats who has loyally followed him to every early state.
But none can command the attention of a packed ballroom just by walking into it quite like Richardson, who is 6-foot-2 in heels and spent 10 years as a black woman in the white-male-dominated tech world, founding Uber’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force and running her own start-ups, after having attended college on scholarships she won in pageants. She also ran track and field and likes to call the four-inch stilettos she always wears her “running sneakers.”
“I will say I have never once gotten lost in a crowd,” she says. “And people tend to gravitate to me, which is great when you want to have conversations about the next president of the United States. You just follow the beacon, the head sticking out of the crowd.”
And it’s that kind of shock-and-awe effect that Buttigieg is going to need if he’s going to have any chance of making a dent in this state.
Through it all, she has been an unfailingly positive force for a campaign that at times has seemed to be marked by disorganization and an increasing wariness of the media.
After South Carolina, she will head to Alabama for Super Tuesday. She was also stiletto-boots-on-the-ground for Buttigieg in Iowa, where she appeared at his victory party alongside other black women in the row behind him, cheering him on — which led Twitter critics and media outlets to accuse the campaign of using black women as political props.
According to Richardson, she and some of those women, who had driven from South Bend, had been watching from the sidelines and simply decided they wanted to get in on the excitement of their favorite candidate’s historic moment.
“It’s rather offensive,” Richardson says, “this notion that adult black women lack the agency to decide where they stand and for whom they stand — and that when they stand there, they must only be stage scenery.”
Richardson’s own “Why Pete?” story, as she calls it, because it’s the one question everyone asks her, began with meeting him at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Phoenix Awards in September.
“Oftentimes, when folks meet me and I’m wearing the crown, they’re expecting a kind of froufrou conversation about world peace or whatever the pageant queen is supposed to talk about,” she says. “But my life’s purpose has been so rooted in advocacy for marginalized people that I wanted to talk about systemic racism.”
She grilled Buttigieg about the shooting of Eric Logan, a black man in South Bend, by a white police officer.
“I’ve never heard a politician accept accountability for a mistake ever, for a failure ever,” she says. But Buttigieg did.
She also liked that he seemed to be listening and trying to come to a better understanding of something he hasn’t experienced, not to figure out how to respond to her criticisms and questions. “I came into that conversation skeptical and walked away impressed,” she said.
Not impressed enough that she thought she would vote for him but curious enough to go down a Google rabbit hole. “I read all the articles, the praise and the hit pieces, all the criticism,” she says.
She read his Douglass Plan, “which is quite literally the answer to the question that black people have asked every presidential candidate for decades: What are you going to do for me?”
She learned that his campaign staff is 40 percent people of color.
She grew concerned that Buttigieg and black people seemed to be mentioned together in the same sentence only in regard to how badly he was doing in his polling numbers.
What pushed her over the edge, though, was the debate in November, when Buttigieg got a barrage of Twitter rage for saying that his experience as a gay man had helped him empathize with black people.
“Twitter rage ensued. I think folks decided to create a story that this was co-opting of the black experience,” Richardson says. “And I was thinking, ‘This is wild!’ Because I know as a black woman how I empathize with, align with and advocate for pretty much every other marginalized person in American. And I think that was what Pete was trying to communicate.”
She shot off a text to the campaign that night, saying she had made up her mind to not only vote for him but to be all on board for endorsing and hitting the trail.
At the HBCUs gala, Richardson huddled with state Rep. J.A. Moore, who is also supporting Buttigieg.
Moore told her that he had actually gone to a Biden rally the night before he endorsed the mayor (the one when he rushed to South Carolina while losing badly in New Hampshire). “Up until that event, I was like, ‘Am I making the right decision?’ ” said Moore. “And then he brought out a gospel choir and started quoting a black Negro spiritual.”
Richardson rolled her eyes. “I noticed he turned on a Southern drawl.”
“To me it was disrespectful and blatant pandering,” Moore said later.
They agreed that black people needed to be deliberate in their voting, because otherwise they’d find themselves once again abandoned by politicians who only used them to get ahead in the primary.
“I’m going to be honest,” Richardson said to Moore. “Buttigieg is more thoughtful than any other white politician I’ve seen on racial justice.”
She knew that he’d probably lose here. No one can pronounce his name. He hasn’t held a national political office.
“But this is the guy that gets that nothing is promised to him,” she said.
On the fourth Sunday of February in the election year of 2020, Richardson decked herself out in Kelly green and sat next to Buttigieg in the first row of the First Baptist Church of James Island.
It was a special service in honor of Black History Month, and the Rev. Charlie Murray Jr. gave the floor to drumming and dancing and a congregant who put on sequined gown and a fur declared, “I am Billie Holiday,” and started belting, “God Bless the Child.” Buttigieg clapped along, sometimes on the right beat.
There were a lot of cameras in the room and a lot of visitors.
Murray asked anyone new to the church to stand. All the white people in the room were new, it seemed.
“Welcome to Wakanda!” the preacher said with a smile.
Eventually Buttigieg got up to speak.
He talked about humility and how he was not seeking the presidency for exaltation but to be the chief servant of the people. He talked about not knowing the black experience but wanting to surround himself with those like Miss Black America sitting right next to him, who might be able to guide him.
The audience peppered his speech with “mmm-hmms” and “Yes, sirs!”
After the service, Murray revealed that Biden’s camp had called last-minute to have him speak there on this final Sunday before the primary. And he’d had to tell them no. They’d already made accommodation for “Reverend Pete,” as he’d jokingly called him, and he couldn’t rescind the invitation. He believed it was the Lord’s will.
A couple of lingering congregants said they hadn’t been totally swayed, but they were convinced that he should be on their list. He’d said the right things, but they were just starting to know him.
Bless his heart.