Last week focus group data commissioned by Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign was leaked to McClatchy. The results? That his dismal standing with black voters was because of  homophobia. But to suggest that black voters are more biased against LGBT candidates in some intrinsic way is  a racist stereotype. Instead of focusing on possible reasons for his total disconnect with a foundational constituency in the Democratic Party Buttigieg opted to blame black voters. Trafficking in this ugly trope is insulting and it’s dead wrong. I know, firsthand: not from a McKinsey-like focus group but from experience as a white, privileged, openly gay man running for the US Senate in North Carolina 12 years ago.

Whereas Buttigieg is the second openly gay candidate for the presidency in US history (after Fred Karger in 2012) I was the second openly gay candidate for the Senate in US history (after Ed Flanagan in 2000). Prior to 2007, I had never run for elective office: my political experience had principally been as a national fundraiser for Democratic presidential, Congressional and gubernatorial campaigns. I was the only candidate seeking to unseat Republican Elizabeth Dole when I declared my candidacy in the fall of 2007. Less than one month from the primary date I led the field of five candidates in poll commissioned by an ABC affiliate– though a plurality of voters remained undecided.

However in the face of stiff opposition to my candidacy by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) I raised only $400,000 (a third of which I lent the campaign), and was unable to run any ads on media. By contrast, the DSCC-backed candidate State Senator Kay Hagan had raised $1.5 million (including hundreds of thousands of dollars injected into her campaign in the final month of the primary by the DSCC) and mounted a vigorous television, radio and direct mail campaign in the final stretch. I earned 240,000 votes (18%) and finished second in the primary to Kay who went on to defeat Senator Dole in the general election.

But African-American voters treated me fairly. Shortly after I had joined the race I was a guest at the early Sunday service at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in Proctorville, NC, about 10 miles north of the South Carolina border in one of the poorest counties in the state. As is custom in the Black church, I was invited to meet the pastor prior to the service. “Jim, most of the people in the pews can’t rub two nickels together” he told me over coffee. I understood that the pastor would introduce me to the congregation but was not prepared at all when he invited me to make a few remarks from the pulpit. I am not religious — unlike Buttigieg, who has made his faith a cornerstone of his campaign — and hardly imagined I would ever be speaking to a congregation from the pulpit. I stepped up onto the dais and behind the pulpit and looked out into the crowd before me: there were perhaps fifty or sixty people. Their body language was telling: crossed arms, pursed lips and blank stares.

I thanked the pastor and then stepped out from behind the pulpit, speaking off the top of my head and from my heart:

 …and yes I am running for the US Senate and would hope to earn your vote. But now let me tell you what you really need to know about me. I know you’ve seen a lot of white men like me standing up here before you dressed in a fancy suit wearing Italian loafers who have promised you lots of things they you were going to do for you if you voted for them. And then they walked down that aisle (pointing) and out that door and you never saw them again. Well, I’m not one of them.

The congregants rose to their feet. That moment shaped the trajectory of my campaign over the ensuing seven months. My words weren’t rehearsed, they weren’t animated by talking points or polls or focus groups. The data which drove my remarks was intuitive. Lost amidst the wonkish policy debates is the fact that politics is all about engagement, authenticity, empathy, listening and showing up. It’s about respecting, not patronizing. And based on my experience there is no group of voters more politically sophisticated than the African American community. Their survival has depended on it. Consequently, political and civil rights activists in the African-American community can smell a rotten fish or a poser from miles away. It doesn’t get any more real on the campaign trail.

I kept showing up, listening and speaking my truth. Over the course of the ensuing seven months I was a guest at well over 50 African American churches (usually in the pulpit). Deaconesses patted my hand and passed me a peppermint to give me a jolt if I began nodding off (I started carrying a bag in my car). The generosity and hospitality were unlike any I had experienced. Unlike other white candidates at a Sunday worship service, I never left the building after being introduced. I stayed for the service and for whatever fellowship followed (usually a great meal). To do otherwise was, well, rude. I was a guest in their home and behaved accordingly.

Word got around. I was the only candidate invited to a six-church Easter celebration organized by the Reverend Dr. Charles R. Mosley and five other Baptist preachers in western North Carolina. Introducing me to the packed house at what was a five-hour service, Dr. Moseley said

The other pastors and I have invited a special guest to join us today. Mr. Jim Neal is a candidate for the US Senate and we have met with him and are impressed with him. We have invited him to speak today and asked him to be mindful of your time. We thought you should hear from Jim and I’ll tell you why. I heard people around the state talking about Jim. They noticed that when we tap our toes, he taps his toes. When we clap our hands, he claps his hands. When we come into the church, he comes into the church- and he doesn’t not leave until we have left.

I was speechless as Dr. Moseley made those remarks. I didn’t know that anyone had noticed.

In the Piedmont region Dr. Cardis Brown of Greensboro, an extraordinary orator, activist and chair of the local chapter of the NAACP, literally yelled my name out to his congregation at New Light Missionary Baptist Church, then spelled out my name: “J-I-M N-E-A-L”.  “Meet me outside and I’ll tell you all you need to know” he said. The head of the North Carolina Democratic Party’s African American Caucus was one of my biggest supporters, ever alerting our campaign to places to go and people to meet, making introductions and passing along information on my opponent.

Then there were the silent supporters, officials who didn’t want to endorse anyone in a primary (Kay Hagan was also co-chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee in the NC State Senate.) State Senator Floyd McKissick, Jr. whose father once headed the Congress of Racial Equality, escorted me into an endorsement meeting of the powerful Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. Floyd’s presence by my side was the message. Judge Jim Wynn, Associate judge of the North Carolina Court of Appeals (and now a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District) began showing up at my campaign events, and sitting beside me at candidate forums. North Carolina House Representative Alma Adams (now Congresswoman from NC 12th) gave me a private tour of the massive closet at her home in Greensboro where she housed her hat collection, and greeted me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek whenever we were at a public forum. People were watching.

In March I scored a huge endorsement from North Carolina’s largest African-American PAC. The Black Political Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg overwhelmingly backed my campaign over that of Hagan, Marcus Williams (an African American attorney and former president of the student body at UNC Chapel Hill) and two other white male candidates.  President Dwayne Collins said in a press release:

The membership of the Black Political Caucus is proud to support Mr. Neal with our endorsement in the U.S. Senate race. We thought Jim is the ideal candidate to defeat Elizabeth Dole, and that is why we are behind his candidacy. He was the best candidate on the issues that affect all citizens, but especially members of the African American community. We look forward to working with Jim Neal to improve the lives of the human family of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

The Sunday before the May 6th primary I was a guest at the 5,000-member St. Paul’s Baptist Church. The Rev. Greg Moss was a fiery activist for, as he put it, the “have-nots and minorities,” and former head of the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina of 1,600 African-American churches, who had all-but endorsed me from the pulpit in a prior visit. Prior to the service I made small talk with a woman from Chicago seated next to me in the front pew who was chaperoning Barack Obama’s surrogate the Rev. Doctor Joseph Lowery – the “dean” of the civil rights movement. A deacon beckoned me to follow him to Greg Moss’ study. In a matter of moments  I found myself clasping Moss’ hand and that of Dr. Lowery as Reverend Moss offered a prayer asking for the victory of “Barack Obama and Jim Neal” the following Tuesday. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of that moment as I held the hand of a civil rights icon.  Months later I learned the identity of Dr. Lowery’s chaperone from the cover of Newsweek.

To be fair I had a clean slate with the African-American community before my run, but Buttigieg does not. Since announcing his candidacy for president, he has been challenged by persistent rifts in his relationship with black voters. He has demoted South Bend’s first black chief of police, and embraced the dismissive phrase “all lives matter”. He has failed to work to diversify his support in South Bend beyond white voters, spurring calls for his resignation as mayor by Black Lives Matter, and dismissed a black South Bend resident’s questions about his commitment to the African American community with an a snarky reply captured on CNN. He has accepted large donations and support from a controversial  attorney in Chicago who sought to bury evidence in the death of a young black man murdered by a white Chicago police officer. Not surprisingly, he also has little support in the African-American press: last week every publisher of black South Carolina media outlets refused Buttigieg’s invitation to his black media roundtable.

In the face of these mounting self-inflicted wounds, Mayor Buttigieg should embrace accountability and engagement, but he hasn’t. Last Friday the mayor remarked

I try not to get too caught up in the polling, but one thing I did notice in the South Carolina numbers is that with the majority of voters in the state, or the black voters in the state, said that they didn’t have an opinion on me yet, and that means they’ve got a lot of opportunity, but also a lot of work.

He still doesn’t get it. Pete Buttigieg has a lot of work to do — not black voters.

Perhaps he started down that path over the weekend by addressing congregants of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Now he needs to keep going back. He needs to quit looking at focus group reports and start looking into the eyes of African-American voters. He needs to quit listening to political consultants and start listening to the voices of people of color he meets. He needs to quit outsourcing his presence in African-American communities to surrogates and “black outreach” staff and start doing the heavy lifting of retail politics in person.  He needs to begin building bridges and quit laying blame. His strong faith provides him with a logical connection to the African-American religious community. If the mayor can get out of his own way he may stand a chance of reversing course.

And if he persists, word will get around. 

Jim Neal is a political activist and the second openly gay candidate for the Senate in history.