LAS VEGAS — Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is working to make inroads with Latino, black and Asian American voters in Las Vegas this weekend, outreach that the South Bend mayor has been slow to make compared with many of his rivals.
Buttigieg is appearing at a series of town halls and roundtables across Las Vegas, including a town hall with Asian American voters Friday night and a “Black empowerment conversation” at a soul food restaurant Saturday afternoon, followed by a Latino community leader roundtable.
It will be Buttigieg’s first event with leaders of the Latino community in Nevada — a significant slice of the state's Democratic electorate.
Nevada, which votes third in the Democratic primary, offers the first test of a candidate’s appeal to a diverse population. Presidential contenders are expected to build relationships in these communities early, typically making campaign stops much sooner than two months out from the caucuses.
Fernando Romero, president of the Las Vegas-based group Hispanics in Politics, said Buttigieg's campaign is “starting a little late in our community. But, nonetheless, they are starting.”
Romero, who has been invited to Buttigieg’s Latino roundtable on Saturday, said he told Buttigieg’s team that he had been “somewhat taken aback that they had not done that prior.”
“By this time, I think most Latinos are already basically siding with one individual or another,” he said. “I think it might be just a little too late.”
Buttigieg only began ramping up his staff in Nevada in early fall, and the late start has been followed by a lag in state polls. Former Vice President Joe Biden has a slight lead, followed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, with Buttigieg trailing behind.
“The Buttigieg folks, I haven’t really seen them around too much. They have a lot of catching up to do for sure,” said Reuben D’Silva, the civic engagement chair of the Las Vegas Urban League Young Professionals.
D’Silva, who is also a faculty adviser for an influential Hispanic student union, said Buttigieg is an impressive candidate and still has room to build bridges.
“He still has time here in Nevada if he invests properly, if he has a renewed focus. Especially on the Hispanic voters," D’Silva said.
The South Bend mayor’s slower start with Nevada’s populations of color comes as he’s been dogged by questions about his failure to catch on with many black voters in South Carolin a, an issue he and his campaign have acknowledged they've been working on.
After meeting with Asian American and Pacific Islander community leaders in Las Vegas on Friday night, Buttigieg was asked by a reporter whether his planned meetings with other communities in Nevada was an attempt to catch up to other campaigns.
The mayor pointed out that he'd met with many of those same Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders on one of his early visits to the state in May.
“I think that the most important thing is for us to continue to have different styles, formats and audiences and that’s been important to us from day one," he said.
In Nevada, Buttigieg’s campaign notes people of color make up a majority of its 55-person paid team. His campaign said it now has organizers hosting house parties in Spanish and canvassing heavily Spanish-speaking neighborhoods.
Buttigieg this week started running radio and online ads in Nevada featuring him speaking in Spanish and released a Latino economic empowerment plan that aims to tackle issues such as safe drinking water, predatory lending, affordable housing and immigration. The plan also calls for expanding the representation of Latinos in the national parks and supports the establishment of a national museum of the American Latino.
“We’re aiming for a broad-based coalition,” Buttigieg senior campaign adviser Jess O’Connell said. "We are absolutely, obviously doing more work in communities of color and leaning in there.”
In his efforts to reach out to Nevada's Latino community, Buttigieg risks being outshone by Sanders this weekend.
A few hours after Buttigieg’s Latino roundtable on Saturday, the Vermont senator is set to hold a rally nearby in a heavily Latino neighborhood with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Democrat from New York who is a progressive star, is also scheduled to host a Spanish-only town hall on behalf of Sanders in Las Vegas on Sunday.
Ocasio-Cortez’s events, Romero said, are “obviously one hell of an outreach to the Latino community."