Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Ind., at Morehouse College in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

ATLANTA (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg told a crowd at Morehouse College that what Black voters on the campaign trail most want to hear from him are whether he can win and what he is going to do for black America.

Buttigieg told the audience of about 250 people at the historically Black, all-male college in Atlanta on Monday that a strong showing in mostly-white Iowa could help persuade Black voters that he can win. Polls have shown that Buttigieg, the white mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has risen into the top tier in Iowa, which hosts 2020’s first presidential caucuses.

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“One of the best ways to settle the question of electability is to do well in an election,” he said. “Iowa is a way to demonstrate that you can get people to come out for you.”

But as he gains momentum in an overwhelmingly white early voting state, the pressure is building on him to demonstrate he can win over black voters, who for now have largely sided with former Vice President Joe Biden. Buttigieg, 37, has stumbled on issues of race, despite having a detailed policy to address systemic racism.

On Monday, he discussed his Douglass Plan — named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass — that aims to redress generations of inequality in areas ranging from education to housing to health care. He also took questions on such issues as voter suppression, funding for historically Black colleges, student debt and impeachment.

Kaori Anderson-Walker, 19, had heard a bit about Buttigieg on social media but came to Monday’s forum to learn more. He thought the mayor was “phenomenal.”

“The way he’s looking out for the Black community is much needed,” said Anderson-Walker, a sophomore at Morehouse who said he’s undecided on who he plans to vote for but could see supporting Buttigieg.

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John Gray spoke briefly to Buttigieg after the forum, asking more about the Douglass Plan and being referred to the candidate’s website for additional information. After taking a selfie with the mayor, Gray acknowledged to a reporter that his initial impression of Buttigieg based off social media and friends was that Buttigieg was “phony,” a perception he said wasn’t disproved by the candidate’s speech.

“He has a lot of sympathy for Black issues, but, as we saw tonight, he wasn’t the most clear on his plans,” said Gray, an 18-year old political science major at Morehouse who said he likes Bernie Sanders but will support whoever is the eventual Democratic nominee.

Since entering the national spotlight, Buttigieg has drawn attention for his handling of race issues as mayor of South Bend, which has a Black population of about 27%. Critics slammed him for demoting the city’s first black police chief shortly after taking office, for his handling of blighted neighborhoods and for a recent police-involved killing of Black man.

Last week, his campaign faced fresh scrutiny for using a stock photograph of a Black woman and her child on a campaign website, instead of images of people Buttigieg had met, and for listing among South Carolina Democrats who had endorsed the Douglass Plan a handful of people who said they had not given their permission to use their names publicly.

Responding to the controversy, Buttigieg said Monday, “That was a learning experience for the campaign staff. We’re cleaning that up. But I’m proud of the support that the plan gets.”

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Kristen Hope Wilder, president of the Young Democrats of Spelman College — Morehouse’s sister institution — said it was important for Buttigieg to show up at the historically Black college. Sanders is also planning to come to Morehouse, and Elizabeth Warren is scheduled to speak at Clark-Atlanta University. Both Sanders and Warren are also struggling to woo black voters away from Biden.

“I definitely think that (Buttigieg) probably caught their attention,” said Wilder, 21. “I think a lot of people coming in tonight didn’t know where he stood on certain issues. This gives people the initiative to look more into him and keep an eye on him on the debate stage.”

Julian Hemmings, president of the New Deal Democrats at Morehouse, said that when he mentions Buttigieg on campus, the response is mostly, “Who?” But then the 21-year-old senior tells them about the mayor’s identities as a gay man, a veteran and a Rhodes scholar and his classmates become intrigued.

“I think if he can emphasize who he is and where he comes from, he’ll have a chance,” Hemmings said. “I don’t know him, but he’s brilliant and I respect him.”

He said Buttigieg’s status as a gay man could help voters of color who have felt ostracized identify with him.