Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg will now attend Martin Luther King Day celebrations in Columbia, South Carolina, on Monday after facing pressure from local Democrats in the state over his initial plans to miss events commemorating the life of the slain civil rights leader there.
Buttigieg had originally planned to attend events in South Bend, Indiana, — Buttigieg’s hometown and where he formerly served as mayor — before jumping to Iowa to attend the Brown and Black Presidential Forum, among other events. But South Carolina Democrats criticized the former mayor after the South Carolina NAACP released this year’s schedule for the annual King Day at the Dome in South Carolina and Buttigieg’s name was not on it.
Lauren Brown, Buttigieg’s South Carolina communications director, said in a statement that Buttigieg had planned to attend the event in South Bend because the “community has always been at the heart of Pete’s campaign for president.”
“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,” Brown continued in the statement. “Pete looks forward to being with the citizens and leaders of Columbia to commemorate the 20th anniversary of King Day at the Dome.”
Buttigieg has struggled in the polls in South Carolina, especially with African American voters, despite polling at or near the top in several early primary states.
On Friday, former South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers, a Democrat, called it “disrespectful” for Democratic presidential candidates to miss the event.
“You don’t miss an Iowa steak fry,” Sellers continued in a tweet. “Look, your (sic) 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 and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar were among just a few candidates not slated to attend the South Carolina event — though Klobuchar communications director Tim Hogan said in a tweet that Klobuchar will attend the prayer service in Columbia ahead of an early speaking slot in Iowa at the Brown and Black forum.
“Amy is attending the prayer service on Monday in South Carolina and the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum on the same day. Unlike some of the candidates she has an early speaking time in Iowa and was trying to change it so she could do both,” Hogan tweeted on Friday.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, businessman Tom Steyer and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren were all committed to the event when the South Carolina NAACP released the schedule of events last week. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s campaign sent out a statement on Saturday saying Patrick would participate as well.
Sellers, when reached for comment Saturday night after Buttigieg’s schedule change, said he’s grateful the candidates are coming, but remains frustrated that it took “arm wrestling” to get some candidates to commit.
“It’s a blind spot that many Democrats have throughout this country especially when it comes to black people in the South. I think King illustrated that a lot in his speeches,” Sellers said. “Monday is an opportunity to show that you understand that and you want to build a bridge from that history to what a better tomorrow looks like and for people not to take advantage of it, or to be arm wrestled into taking advantage of it, is disappointing.”
Asked if he’d be disappointed if Klobuchar didn’t attend the march to the state house after attending the prayer breakfast, Sellers said it’d be a partial effort.
“If someone can’t give you time, then don’t expect them to give you progress in the White House. Period,” he said.
Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina Democratic strategist who had also voiced frustration last week over the small field of candidates attending the King Day at the Dome events, said he was “very pleased” with Buttigieg’s decision.
“I look forward to hearing from him like so many others in South Carolina,” Seawright told CNN.