Too dumb to check: Did Mayor Pete put out a bogus list of African-American endorsements?

A fun catch this weekend from The Intercept’s Ryan Grim deserves some extra notice, even if the catch itself comes with a catch or two. Pete Buttigieg has struggled to attract support in the key African-American demographic of Democrats, a voter group that has remained doggedly loyal to Joe Biden. In response, Mayor Pete’s campaign put out its Douglass Plan for Black America three weeks ago, less of a plan than a series of platitudes about workforce training, “Health Equity Zones,” and pouring more money and regulations into public education.

The issue isn’t the plan, however, but how Team Buttigieg tried to sell it. In the HBCU Times, the campaign through two of its proxies listed “over 400 South Carolinians who endorsed Pete Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan for Black America.” The article in the platform aimed specifically at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) included this:

“We are over 400 South Carolinians, including business owners, pastors, community leaders, and students. Together, we endorse his Douglass Plan for Black America, the most comprehensive roadmap for tackling systemic racism offered by a 2020 presidential candidate.”

Needless to say, the Buttigieg campaign began promoting these endorsements heavily, although there seems to be little evidence that it’s helped. While Buttigieg is rising in mainly monochromatic Iowa, Buttigieg remains mired in fifth place in RCP’s South Carolina tracking, although the latest CBS/YouGov poll showed him moving up to a distant fourth in their series.

The way that they promoted the endorsement list, however, is the issue. While the campaign never explicitly said that the list consisted of entirely African-Americans, that was the impression the campaign left. Grim did a little research and discovered that fewer than half identify as black, and perhaps as much as 62% were white:

Aside from not supporting Buttigieg, many of the South Carolinian signees share another quality, as well: They’re not black.

The campaign hasn’t publicly claimed that every supporter of the plan listed is African American, though it wouldn’t be hard to draw that implication: It was published in the HBCU Times, and the bylines and top-listed supporters are all black. To be sure, a multiracial coalition would be needed to push the Douglass Plan through Congress, but the campaign didn’t say that, either. …

Whatever the intent, a review of the 422 names on the list of supporters finds that at least 297 of them appear in the South Carolina voter file. Not all states ask for information on race when registering to vote, but, unsurprisingly, given its history of voter suppression, South Carolina does. The campaign only published the names of the supporters, without additional identifying information, which makes finding them in the voter file a challenge, given some have common names like James Wilson and Mary Williams. But for 184 of them, the voter file lists either one name, or lists multiple people, all of whom self-identify as white — so at least 42 percent of the entire list is white. And that means 62 percent of the 297 names that can be reliably checked are white.

The wording of the campaign’s efforts also indicated that the names on the list had endorsed Buttigieg. As Grim noted in that first paragraph of the above excerpt, that also turned out not to be true:

Devine, who has not endorsed a candidate yet in the presidential election, told The Intercept that she did not intend her support for the plan to be read as an endorsement for Buttigieg’s candidacy, and believes the campaign was “intentionally vague” about the way it was presented.

“Clearly from the number of calls I received about my endorsement, I think the way they put it out there wasn’t clear, that it was an endorsement of the plan, and that may have been intentionally vague. I’m political, I know how that works,” she said. “I do think they probably put it out there thinking people wouldn’t read the fine print or wouldn’t look at the details or even contact the people and say, ‘Hey, you’re endorsing Mayor Pete?’”

Not only did Johnnie Cordero’s name get added without his permission, he never supported the plan either. In fact, Cordero wanted to know how the plan was developed, telling Grim that “I know Pete didn’t draft the plan.” His anger over this episode isn’t just the campaign’s use of his name to support Buttigieg, but also in what he sees as exploitation in how they created it in the first place:

It’s presumptuous to think you can come up with a plan for black America without hearing from black folk. There’s nothing in there that said black folk had anything to do with the drafting of that plan. Now I like Pete, please don’t get me wrong. I’ll help him in any way I can. I think he’s an honest man, I think he’s a decent man, I think he has integrity. I’d like to see him keep running. But you don’t do that. Those days are over and done with. We’re tired of people telling us what we need. You wanna find out what we need? Come and ask us.

That extends all the way to the use of stock photos for the plan. Rather than perform due diligence — or maybe send a photographer into the communities that the plan is supposed to help — Team Buttigieg used photos that turned out not to be American at all. The use of images from Kenya was “not ok or necessary,” Ilhan Omar scolded:

Team Buttigieg blamed a “contractor” for the error:

“This photo was removed from the page on our website promoting the Douglass Plan months ago as part of an update to the page. The stock photo, which is widely utilized across the internet, was initially selected while a contractor was running our site, and the stock photo website it was pulled from did not indicate the photo was taken in Kenya, nor did it identify the woman as being from Kenya in any way,” a spokesperson for the Buttigieg campaign told The Hill.

“Using stock photos on websites is standard practice but as our campaign has grown, we have brought all of our web development in-house to guard against mistakes like this,” the spokesperson added. “We apologize for any confusion this caused.”

In other words, this is amateur hour. It’s tough to know how Buttigieg could have booted this worse, even if one concedes that the campaign never explicitly claimed all of its endorsers were African-American. It may be only slightly less dishonest than Grim’s report suggests, but it’s every bit as incompetent.