Pete Buttigieg Calls For Unity At Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium. But Even Some Of His Supporters Question Whether He Can Appeal To Black Voters

Pete Buttigieg Denver Fillmore Auditorium
Hayley Sanchez/CPR News
Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg addresses a large crowd at Denver’s Fillmore Auditorium on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg delivered a message of unity to a lively crowd Wednesday evening during a fundraising event at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver.

“The purpose of the presidency is not the glorification of the president,” he said. “It is the empowerment and the unification of the American people.”

He asked the crowd to picture the day after ballots are counted in November. "Think about it. On that day, our country will be even more divided, even more polarized and torn up by politics than we are right now, crying out to be unified and brought into a sense of common purpose needing a president who can do that."

The former two-term mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is the first openly gay presidential candidate to get traction in the polls. He is 37 and the youngest candidate in the 2020 primary race. Lately he has ranked a distant fourth in national polls, and higher in early primary states.

The auditorium on Wednesday was filled with many people who appeared to be middle-aged and white, with few people of color in the crowd. Some attendees cheered Buttigieg on over beers. Others dressed in t-shirts, hats and buttons and carried signs that read, “PETE 2020.” 

He touched on lots of topics that matter to voters including war, the economy, health care, gun control, school shootings and climate change.

“This can't wait 10 years,” Buttigieg said. “This can't wait four years. It needs to happen now. We can't wait any longer on climate. If the science tells us that the deadline scientifically to do something drastic is 2030, then the political deadline is 2020.”

While waiting in line to go inside the Fillmore, Barbara Yarnell of Denver said she strongly supports Buttigieg, but she worries he won't get support from people of color. For her, climate change was top-of-mind.

“Climate change is an existential threat,” she said. “There’s no doubt about it and he’s certainly on board with that.”

Pete Buttigieg Denver Fillmore Auditorium
Hayley Sanchez/CPR News
Two women look at campaign buttons for presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg outside the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver as they wait to hear him speak on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Buttigieg also talked about public education and how more resources for mental health need to be available in schools. He said teachers need to be treated more fairly, too. His husband Chasten Glezman is a teacher. 

“We need to build up the whole profession,” he said. “If we honored teachers a little more like soldiers and paid them like doctors we’d be better off as a country.” 

A Navy veteran himself who deployed to Afghanistan, Buttigieg said he doesn’t support teachers being armed to prevent mass shootings when asked during a short question and answer session. He added military-grade weapons shouldn’t be sold to the public, either. 

Pete Buttigieg Denver Fillmore Auditorium
Hayley Sanchez/CPR News
Attendees listen to presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as he addresses a large crowd at Denver's Fillmore Auditorium on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

Earlier in the day, Buttigieg appeared on "30 Minutes With Brother Jeff," a show streamed on Facebook and hosted by Denver community organizer and journalist Jeff Fard. On the show Buttigieg talked about gentrification, urban camping bans and incarceration.

The candidate has a complicated history with the black community because of his tenure in South Bend. He dismissed the city's first black police chief after secret recordings allegedly revealed racism in the department. And he drew criticism recently for his handling of the fatal shooting of a black man. The incidents have meant that issues over institutional racism and minority representation in the police department have continued to come up in Buttigieg's presidential campaign. 

“We found it got harder each passing year to recruit black officers into the department, especially after Ferguson happened,” Buttigieg said on the Brother Jeff show. “It’s not just getting folks through the process, it’s getting people to apply. I understand the reasons why that happens. But I’m also owning up to the fact that we’ve got to do better, in my city and as a country.”

Although Buttigieg has struggled to appeal to black voters nationally, Rodney Hicks, who recently moved to Denver, rallied for him at the Fillmore.  

“I can’t speak for other black people. I’m only me and he has my vote,” Hicks said after Buttigieg finished speaking to the crowd. “I love that he’s gay, love it, because as an LGBTQ person, we all know the struggles.

"Growing up as an LGBTQ person, no matter the race, it is hard. It is so hard. And so for him to say, ‘I’m running for president,’ and to get this far, hell yeah, I’m voting for him.”

Editor's Note: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the first openly gay candidate to get traction in the polls. However, previous candidates have mounted campaigns.