After local leaders criticized his decision, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg’s campaign announced that he will, after all, attend Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations in Columbia, S.C., on Monday.
Buttigieg had originally planned to attend commemorative events in his hometown of South Bend, Ind. He now plans to spend Monday morning in South Carolina before attending previously scheduled events in Iowa on Monday afternoon.
Buttigieg has struggled to attract support from black voters, one of the Democratic Party’s most important constituencies. His absence from King Day activities in the first voting state in which black voters dominate was particularly glaring and generated significant criticism.
Former vice president Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and businessman Tom Steyer had previously committed to take part in the 20th anniversary of King Day at the Dome — an annual rally held by the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP.
“The South Bend community has always been at the heart of Pete’s campaign for president, which is why he planned to attend an MLK event there Monday,” the campaign said in a statement. “But he also wants to make clear his commitment to earning the support and trust of every voter in South Carolina, including those of the African American community who consistently serve as the base of our party. Pete looks forward to being with the citizens and leaders of Columbia to commemorate the 20th anniversary of King Day at the Dome.”
A recent Washington Post poll showed Buttigieg received support from only 3 percent of black voters who said they were familiar with him. More than half of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate is African American, making support from black voters crucial to any candidate’s hopes of winning delegates in its Feb. 29 primary.
Buttigieg’s planned absence from the high-profile event was taken by some in the state as a slap at those voters.
“I’m putting this out there. Candidates skipping King Day at the Dome is disrespectful [as it gets]” Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who endorsed Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) before her departure from the presidential race, tweeted on Friday. “You don’t miss an Iowa steak fry. Look, your not just speaking to black folk in SC you’re speaking to black folks throughout the South. I’m disappointed. It’s like you don’t care.”
Buttigieg was planning a trip to South Carolina later in the coming week, his first since early December. His campaign has been running ads in the state featuring black supporters from South Bend praising Buttigieg. The grandson of Rep. James E. Clyburn, the state’s longest-serving congressman, narrates a Buttigieg radio ad running there. His campaign announced $2 million in ad spending in early December.
But Buttigieg has made clear that part of his hopes in South Carolina rest on what happens in Iowa.
“It continues to be the case that Iowa is very important because it’s our opportunity to demonstrate our strength to a lot of voters I think are very pragmatic — in places like South Carolina and Nevada — who above all want to see a candidate who can win,” Buttigieg said on Feb. 11. He will fly to Iowa after the events Monday morning and is scheduled to remain there until late in the week.
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