Why the black mayor of this Iowa city endorsed Buttigieg

Christa Case Bryant

Mayor Quentin Hart, an African American whose Iowa metro area was ranked No. 1 in America for racial disparity by one source in 2018, recently endorsed Pete Buttigieg as the presidential candidate best suited to help communities like his.

“Pete has probably one of the most aggressive plans for black America,” says Mayor Hart of Waterloo, Iowa. Plus, he adds, he’d like to see someone in the White House who has the accountability of a local leader who runs into his or her constituents in the grocery store or local Walmart. “I believe we need a mayor’s approach.”

The Jan. 14 endorsement may have surprised national pundits, who routinely describe Mr. Buttigieg as unable to win over black voters. It also runs counter to criticism from the African American community in South Bend, Indiana, where Mr. Buttigieg just concluded two terms as mayor.

If Mayor Hart’s backing is a boon for Mr. Buttigieg, however, it is by no means a guarantee that the rest of Waterloo’s black community will follow.

Amid increased engagement from African Americans, who make up 17% of the population here, Sen. Elizabeth Warren drew 300 people to a house party; former Vice President Joe Biden won the vote of an influential pastor; and Sen. Cory Booker, who became the first presidential candidate to open a campaign office in Waterloo's black community, gained traction before dropping out.

Though Mr. Buttigieg has gained high-profile supporters and drew 600 to an outdoor rally in September - on a rainy day, no less - some here don’t like what they’ve heard about his track record on racial issues back home.

Mayor Hart, whose long-time friends and associates describe him as a very deliberate decision-maker, acknowledges the criticism from South Bend – but has a different perspective as a fellow mayor. In an Op-Ed announcing his endorsement, he pointed to statistics like black unemployment dropping by 70% during Mr. Buttigieg’s tenure.

“My role is not to debunk anything Pete’s city feels about him or his leadership,” he says in a phone interview. “My role is to tell what I know about Pete from my relationship with him.”

The mayor

They met at an Accelerator for America event in 2018 – two mayors of midsize Midwestern cities that had struggled with industrial decline and racial tension.

Last summer, after then-Mayor Buttigieg launched his presidential campaign, Mayor Hart welcomed him to Waterloo and brought his visitor to the Fourth Street bridge over the Cedar River.

To the west was Waterloo’s largely white community, with its cluster of hotels and fast-food chains. On the other bank stood the struggling East Side, where African Americans were sequestered when they came to break a railroad strike in the early 1900s. Parts of the East Side burned in a riot in 1968, in which long-simmering tensions around racial inequality broke out after police tried to arrest a man at a high school football game.

Quentin Hart was standing here when he got the phone call in 2015 confirming that he would become the city’s first African American mayor. He vowed to work to bridge the divides in his community.

Within three years, Waterloo was named Iowa’s small business community of the year and one of the top 10 job markets in the country. Crime had dropped to the lowest level in decades, though residents still express concern about nighttime gun shots ringing out across their neighborhoods.

There was also bad news in 2018, however: The online website 24/7 Wall Street, using U.S. census data, concluded that Waterloo, when paired with neighboring Cedar Falls, had the largest “social and economic disparities along racial lines” of any U.S. metro area.

It found that African Americans were five times more likely to be unemployed than their white neighbors, and those employed earned only about half the median income of their white counterparts. And the rate of homeownership was just 32%, compared with 73% among white residents. Though Waterloo fared slightly better in the index’s 2019 rankings, coming in at No. 3, the racial disparities are still stark.

Which is where Mr. Buttigieg’s plan comes in, promising to address systemic racism and “unlock the collective potential of black America.”

The Douglass Plan, named after abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, is similar in scope to the Marshall Plan that funded European reconstruction after World War II. It includes everything from reforming the criminal justice system to improving access to mortgages.

“What got my attention was he was addressing it not with a Band-Aid approach of, ‘Let’s just throw a program out there,’” says former state Rep. Deborah Berry, who was invited to a Buttigieg roundtable with local black leadership in December.

The political newcomer

Bridget Saffold may not be recognized as a leader per se, but if black turnout is up on caucus night, she will have had a lot to do with it.

A nurse and mother of four who is finishing up her bachelor’s degree in nursing, she’s never been very involved in politics. But that changed with President Donald Trump’s election. In the past year, she has found time to host events – including the first-ever house party in her community, with Elizabeth Warren. Some 300 people filled her backyard.

She has been intentional about inviting people who might not otherwise get involved.

“I want to say ‘little people,’” she says over a 99-cent breaded tenderloin sandwich special at the local Steamboat Gardens restaurant. “Just regular working people who don’t get heard.”

When they came out, “It was the first time they were hearing, ‘Hey, it’s important for you to be part of the process. You matter,’” says Ms. Saffold.

One of the concerns about Mr. Buttigieg is that even if he manages to win the Democratic nomination, he won’t be able to get out the black vote in the general election next fall, and Democrats will lose.

“The narrative in the media is that if he fails, it’s because he didn’t connect with black voters,” says Ryan Stevenson, an organizer for the Booker campaign who grew up in Waterloo. “Don’t just put the blame on us.”

There are other groups Buttigieg doesn’t connect well with either, such as younger white voters, he says. Plus, he adds, the lack of connection is a two-way street.

That said, Mr. Stevenson takes issue with some of the criticism Mr. Buttigieg has faced, including a New York Times article this week about tensions within his campaign over the treatment of minority staffers.

“It’s an issue that all campaigns are facing, so for [the Times] to frame it just as a Buttigieg issue is not right,” says Mr. Stevenson.

Plus, such criticisms may be overblown. An online survey this fall found Mr. Buttigieg polling the highest of any candidate among non-white voters. Also, 46% of his senior advisors are people of color. Angela Weekley, manager of community inclusion at Veridian Credit Union in Waterloo, says of the people he’s surrounded himself with: “That’s the type of America I’d like to see.”

The pastor

Iowa itself has been hammered for being “too white” to host the first-in-the-nation caucus.

“It hurts to hear that,” says the Rev. Frantz Whitfield, pastor of the Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in Waterloo. “I love my state, I love Iowa, even as an African American man. ... There’s so much diversity here, which I don’t think the media picks up on.”

But the Democratic candidates have picked up on those growing pockets of minorities, at least more than in prior years.

“A lot of them are in Waterloo quite often,” Mr. Whitfield says – 80 times, to be precise. “It makes people feel good.” The front-runners have each visited Waterloo four times with the exception of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has made seven trips. Most of them are returning this weekend for a final swing.

The pastor, who endorsed Mr. Biden in July, estimates that 95% of the people he speaks with, from the gas station to those in his own pews, have said they’re also going with Biden.

One of them might be Anna Weems, a 92-year-old civil rights activist who brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. here in 1959. But when asked who she thinks would best be able to advocate for Waterloo from the White House, she guffaws.

“It’s not the White House, it’s what we can do,” she says, recalling King’s preaching of unity. “It’s brothers and sisters that touch each other every day.”

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