Debate clash on race pushes issue to forefront for Democrats

Kathleen Ronayne and Bill Barrow
Associated Press

Atlanta – Democratic presidential candidates put race at the forefront of their primary scramble Thursday, punctuated by a tense exchange between Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris after the white mayor connected his experiences as a gay man to black Americans’ long struggle against racism.

Harris, one of three black candidates seeking the nomination, criticized Buttigieg in a post-debate event in Atlanta, calling him “naive” and criticizing him for comparing the struggles of the black and LGBTQ communities. A Democrat who wants a winning coalition “should not be in position of saying one group’s pain is equal than or greater to another,” said Harris, a California senator.

Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg listens to a question in the spin room after a Democratic presidential primary debate, Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019, in Atlanta.

Buttigieg, the white mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who wed his husband, Chasten, last year, countered that he was not comparing the travails of the LGBTQ community and black America, but instead speaking up for one discriminated class based on his experiences in another.

The exchange highlights the importance of the black vote in the Democratic nomination process and both candidates’ struggles to win them over. It also threatens to expose an uneasy relationship in the party’s civil rights coalition, as the party increasingly recognizes LGBTQ rights as a priority alongside its decadeslong alignment with the civil rights movement for African Americans.

Harris and Buttigieg are among several Democratic candidates trying to dent former Vice President Joe Biden’s advantage among black Democrats. Biden was meeting Thursday with a group of prominent black Southern mayors, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms, who has emerged as one of his top campaign surrogates.

Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts were holding dueling rallies on Atlanta’s historically black college campuses, pitching their progressive policy slates to a younger African American audience that is viewed as up for grabs.

Buttigieg has surged to an apparent lead in overwhelmingly white Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucus Feb. 3, but he and his aides acknowledge that he needs to improve on his negligible support in the black community in other states. Harris is still trying to crack the top tier in Iowa and beyond, and she used the Atlanta debate Wednesday to make a direct appeal to black women while pitching herself as the ideal nominee to rebuild the multiracial coalition that twice sent Barack Obama to the Oval Office.

The Buttigieg-Harris flap spun off the mayor saying Wednesday night during a discussion of race that he’s often “felt like a stranger” in his own country – a version of a point he makes frequently on the campaign trail when he says he understands what it’s like to watch politicians argue over his civil rights.

He clarified his intent Thursday but pushed back on Harris’ characterization of his remarks.

“There’s no equating those two experiences – and some people, by the way, live at the intersection of those experiences,” he told reporters. “What I do think is important is for each of us to reveal who we are and what motivates us.”

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic consultant in South Carolina, said Buttigieg should expect more scrutiny now that he’s a consensus top-tier candidate. But Seawright downplayed any apparent tensions between gay rights and black civil rights.

“I think that our party and our country is made up of the experiences of Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete, so I don’t think that Mayor Pete can walk two and a half steps in Kamala’s shoes, and I don’t know if Sen. Harris could ever walk in the mayor’s shoes,” he said.

Cory Booker, the other black candidate on the debate stage in Atlanta, avoided weighing in Thursday morning.

Sanders, meanwhile, also made an appeal to black voters using his own biography – but without drawing criticism from any rivals.

“Some of you know, I’m Jewish,” Sanders told a rally crowd at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, the alma mater of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. “My father came to this country from Poland. He came fleeing anti-Semitism. A lot of people in my father’s family did not make it out of Poland.

“They were murdered by the father of white supremacy, Adolf Hitler,” Sanders continued. “So I learned at a very young age what racism and white supremacy and Aryanism and all that crap is about, and our place together is that we will do everything humanly possible to end all forms of discrimination in this country.”

He went on to tell them of his 1960s activism, describing himself and his fellow white students as “not quite so brave” as black citizens in the more dangerous Jim Crow South. But, he said, “I was arrested and went to jail fighting housing segregation in Chicago.”

Warren is scheduled to speak Thursday evening at neighboring Clark-Atlanta University, where she will highlight civil rights figures in a rare formal address.

Both Warren and Sanders, each of whom regularly draws large white crowds and sometimes racially mixed crowds, have committed to aggressive outreach for black voters. Sanders won many majority white primaries and caucuses over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but Clinton ran up wide margins in states with significant nonwhite populations, amassing a delegate advantage Sanders never could match.