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Pete Buttigieg wins first endorsement from a black member of Congress

Pete Buttigieg listens to Mikey Kelly as he meets with black voters at a restaurant in North Las Vegas in December. (Michelle L. Price/AP)

Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg received his first endorsement from a member of the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday when former Maryland lieutenant governor Anthony G. Brown announced his support for the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.

“I firmly believe that Pete Buttigieg is the guy to lead our nation after we defeat Donald Trump and have to pick up the pieces and repair the damage of the last four years,” Brown said in an interview. “He’s well-versed and studied and really diligent about the issues from a policy standpoint.”

As Buttigieg has vaulted to the top tier of the Democratic field, he has struggled to attract support from African American voters and leaders. Brown will serve as a national campaign co-chairman, the first endorser the campaign has named to that position.

Brown, 58, is a relatively junior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, having been elected to Congress in 2016. Two years earlier, Brown lost a governor’s race in heavily Democratic Maryland to current Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, in part because of a significant drop-off in Democratic turnout.

Brown acknowledged Buttigieg has received criticism for how he has approached racial issues in South Bend, but he said Buttigieg has not shied away from the critiques.

“We all suffer criticism,” Brown said. “The question is, how well do you take that criticism and sort of transform it into an overall constructive approach to addressing the challenges that are being raised? And I think he is really good at that and is open to it.”

Buttigieg’s campaign plans to deploy Brown on the campaign trail in the coming weeks, much of which the candidate will spend in Iowa during the final push to the Feb. 3 caucuses. That effort also includes new television ads, announced Tuesday, that will be airing in each of the four early primary states.

The ads running in Iowa and New Hampshire feature Buttigieg speaking about various issues, but the one in South Carolina — where black voters make up most of the Democratic electorate — consists of black members of the South Bend community talking about how Buttigieg listened to their concerns.

Since launching his presidential exploratory committee in early 2019, Buttigieg has transformed from a little-known mayor into a viable contender for the Democratic nomination. He has climbed to the top of polls in Iowa and New Hampshire and has raised more money than former vice president Joe Biden.

But Buttigieg has not accumulated the list of high-profile endorsers touted by some of his competitors. Until Wednesday, just three sitting members of Congress had endorsed Buttigieg; Biden, by comparison, has the official backing of more than 30 lawmakers.

In an interview, Brown said he paid close attention to the Democratic debates and to Buttigieg’s speeches over the summer. The arguments he heard and things he saw from the candidate impressed him. When the Buttigieg campaign reached out to Brown, he met with the candidate and trailed him during a swing through Iowa in late December.

“When I went out there and I attended a lot of events, my ear was listening to him but my eyes were on the audience,” Brown said. “How are people reacting to this midsized city mayor who is fairly new to the American electorate but is attracting a lot of attention because of his ideas and because of his openness?”

He concluded that Buttigieg is “very, very consistent and connects well to the audience.”

Brown — who represents Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, just outside Washington — has other connections with Buttigieg. Both attended Harvard University and both are military veterans.

Brown served 30 years in the military, including a tour in Iraq, and said Buttigieg’s own service was an important part of his decision. He also defended the 37-year-old candidate against concerns by some voters that he lacks experiences, saying the notions of age and experience “need to be decoupled.”

“He’s got eight years as mayor,” Brown said, noting that he served under Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a former Baltimore mayor. “I saw firsthand the important work that mayors do, whether it’s public health, whether it’s public education. It’s just a variety of issues dealing with diverse communities.”

For all of Buttigieg’s high polling numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, surveys suggest he could hit speed bumps in states with more diverse electorates. Buttigieg has polled in the low single digits with black voters in South Carolina and nationwide, and his struggles to handle racial issues have come under a microscope.

Buttigieg has faced criticism, for example, for his relations with black residents in South Bend, which crescendoed after a white police offer shot and killed a black man named Eric Logan there this summer.

Nationally, some African American activists say he’s had an erratic approach to black outreach during his campaign. Rival candidates criticized him for citing his experience as a gay man in discussing the discrimination faced by the black community; Buttigieg said he did not intend to compare the two.

Adding to his challenges, some officials in South Carolina said the Buttigieg campaign misrepresented them as endorsers of his “Douglass Plan” on racial justice, and the campaign drew fire for using a stock photo of a Kenyan woman on the plan’s cover.

Buttigieg’s campaign has held multiple small-group events with black voters over the past month, and at each of them, at least one attendee asked Buttigieg how voters of color can trust him to look out for their interests.

Brown was at one of those events, a gathering in Des Moines hosted by the local NAACP chapter and a Des Moines-based group called Urban Dreams. Buttigieg fielded several questions from black voters about his plans and his record on racial justice.

“He didn’t shy away from the fact that South Bend, like Baltimore, like so many cities, have challenges, and that he’s learned a lot in addressing that,” said Brown, adding that his Douglass Plan shows he intends to seriously tackle racial disparities.

In South Carolina, the Buttigieg campaign recently invested $2 million in television and radio ads. South Bend Council member Sharon McBride has campaigned for Buttigieg in the state as part of the campaign’s effort to counter local criticism.

The campaign has also sought to put Buttigieg in small-group settings with African American and Latinx leaders in Iowa, Nevada and elsewhere as part of an attempt to build relationships and trust in communities of color.

“He’s demonstrated it out there, the ability to pull together a diverse coalition of people to take on these issues,” Brown said. “The issues that he was speaking to when I was in Iowa, the same issues that have come up during debates — these are issues that resonate in all communities across America.”