WINTERSET, Iowa — Black Lives Matter activist Kat Redding says if former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg captures the Democratic presidential nomination she won’t vote come Election Day.
Ms. Redding is among a small band of Black Lives Matter members from South Bend that protested Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign stop over the weekend in Los Angeles and have followed him here to Iowa, where they hope to cast a pall over his candidacy three weeks out from the first-in-the-nation caucuses by cautioning voters that the silver-tongued 37-year-old can’t be trusted to address the concerns of the black community.
“To me, Mayor Pete is the equivalent of Trump,” Ms. Redding told The Washington Times on Monday. “I feel like Trump is very aggressive with his racism, and I think Mayor Pete is very passive with his racism.”
If Mr. Trump and Mr. Buttigieg “are my options I would not vote. They are just two of the same people,” she said, and denied recent news reports identifying her as a supporter of Sen. Bernard Sanders.
The line of attack and public protests have made life more difficult for Mr. Buttigieg, who has struggled to gain traction with black voters, even as his message of belonging and unity has struck a chord with voters in predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire, where he is running near the front of the pack.
Mr. Buttigieg’s allies have a different take on his eight years as mayor.
South Bend Councilwoman Sharon McBride, who is black, countered that “the opinions of South Bend Black Lives Matter are not necessarily representative of the black community in South Bend, many of whom are supportive of Pete and believe that our city has gotten better under his leadership.”
“As someone who has worked closely with Pete as a member of my hometown’s Common Council, I know him to be a thoughtful, honest, inspiring leader,” Ms. McBride said, praising his record on affordable housing and combating homelessness.
The Buttigieg campaign, meanwhile, highlighted the reduced unemployment and poverty rates on his watch.
It also touted the “Douglass Plan for Black America” — named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass — which the presidential hopeful rolled out earlier this year that outlines his vision for lifting up black communities through changes to the criminal justice system and spending more on schools and health care.
Ms. Redding and a few other members of Black Lives Matter, a group that she said includes about two dozen members, crashed a Buttigieg town hall Sunday, holding “anti-black, anti-poor” signs, blasted out news releases knocking him and signaled they aren’t going away.
Polls show Mr. Buttigieg is locked in a tight race with Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, the last of whom has been the clear favorite of black voters across the nation.
Becky Kakac, a white Iowa supporter of the ex-mayor, said at the Winterset town hall that she understands that Mr. Buttigieg has work to do with black voters, but appeared befuddled at the idea that Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Trump could be cast as two peas in a pod.
“I would never put them in the same pod,” Ms. Kakac said. “That’s upsetting. I don’t know what to think of it. I am kind of shocked that someone would say that.”
She attributed Mr. Buttigieg’s struggles with black voters to him being less well-known than the other top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“I believe he has the best chance of beating Donald Trump and also bringing us back together after the election,” the 68-year-old woman said. “We are going to be more divided in another few months than we are right now and I think he is the guy who can unify us.”
Larry Corkren said he’s whittled his choices down to Mr. Buttigieg or Mr. Biden. The 75-year-old Iowan, who also is white, said he is interested in learning more about why Mr. Buttigieg turns off black voters before he makes a final choice.
“When the dust is all settled, then I hope at that point black voters, Hispanic voters, will unite around the candidate,” he said.
Mr. Buttigieg will get another crack at scoring points with voters in Iowa, as well as those tuning in across the country nationally when he takes the stage at the CNN/Des Moines Register sponsored debate Tuesday in Des Moines.
Mr. Sanders, Mrs. Warren, Mr. Biden and billionaire activist Tom Steyer also qualified for the debate, which is the last scheduled before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.
On Monday, Mr. Buttigieg kicked off the day with a campaign stop here in Winterset and closed it out with a town hall with actress Mandy Moore at Iowa State University.
Ms. Moore praised Mr. Buttigieg at the evening event, saying he “knows how to unite people around their shared values.”
“When I really stop to think about Pete, I don’t even think Hollywood knows what to do with him,” Ms. Moore said at ISU. “He’s that much of an original.”
At his first stop in Winterset, he touched on issues of race.
“This is a country that cannot wait to make sure that your race has no bearing on your health and your wealth — or your life expectancy or your relationship with law enforcement in your community,” Mr. Buttigieg said here in Madison County, which Mr. Trump easily carried in 2016.
It is the fatal police shooting of a black man named Eric Logan in June that served as a flashpoint over lingering racial tensions in South Bend, opening Mr. Buttigieg up to criticism from activists that he has failed them.
That has made life more difficult for Mr. Buttigieg on the campaign trail, as the flareup in South Bend and the national headlines that followed have shaped the way black voters view his candidacy in states that are not overwhelmingly white as are Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states to vote.
It also has provided Mr. Buttigieg’s rivals with an opportunity to raise doubts about his electability and raise concerns over whether he is the party’s best bet for re-energizing black voters after their turnout fell out in key states in 2016.
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll, said Mr. Buttigieg has a lot of ground to make up with black voters who are more familiar with his rivals.
“The question remains whether those difficulties really would keep black support down in a general election and especially keep turnout down in a general election,” Mr. Franklin said. “I think it is almost certainly the case if he were the Democratic nominee he would see much stronger African American support than we would see in the polling today, but the key question is could he overcome the current weakness to fully rally black voters the way that other candidates might.”