Pete Buttigieg, the white and openly gay Midwestern mayor who is emerging as an early star in the crowded Democratic presidential primary, admitted what he lacked Sunday as a mostly white audience in North Charleston stared back at him.

The mayor of South Bend, Ind., who is drawing large crowds and has appeared on the cover of Time magazine with his husband, began his town hall by calling it a conversation. Then he veered into a political confession.

"We need to be a campaign that models —in every respect — in our makeup, in our practices, in our support and in our conduct the increasingly democratic and the increasingly diverse country that this nation is becoming," Buttigieg said.

Gary Loadholt, of North Charleston, had been waiting for it. 

Loadholt, was one of the few African Americans in the crowd of 600 people who stood shoulder-to-shoulder inside a multipurpose room at North Charleston High School.

Loadholt wanted to get a feeling for Buttigieg's depth as a candidate, especially when it came to his plans to do outreach to minority communities and speak to issues that disproportionately affect people of color.

"It doesn't matter to me if the nominee is a person of color or a woman of color, even though that would be pretty amazing," Loadholt said, admitting he had been impressed most by U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California. "But I just really want to hear what he has to say."

Buttigieg said he believed the criminal justice system is broken.

"Frankly, the government doesn't help deal with the unfreedom that comes from walking in fear if you are a person of color because there is a veil of mistrust between you and police officers sworn to keep you safe," Buttigieg said, prompting cheers.

For Loadholt, it prompted something more.

"It felt like he was speaking directly to me about issues faced every day by people of color," Loadholt said. "He was very impressive."

Buttigeig, the youngest candidate in the field, said after the rally in an interview with The Post and Courier that he still has a long way to go when it comes to building a coalition with minorities in South Carolina where blacks make up a majority in the Democratic primary.

It's why Buttigieg said he decided to address issues like criminal justice reform and gerrymandering during Sunday's town hall.

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"My experience at home is that you can't tackle these issues unless you're willing to face them head on and in an honest way," Buttigieg said by phone to the Post and Courier as he drove to a fundraiser scheduled in Charleston later in the evening.

"There's a lot of pain and a lot of challenges around these issues but we also have to be as forthright as we can about confronting them," Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg said he would support ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. He also called for the end of private prison systems and the legalization of marijuana.

Hours before his town hall, Buttigieg confirmed he had been trying to make inroads with the African American community during a meeting with elected officials and faith leaders. He declined to give specific names since the meeting was private.

Buttigieg also said he planned to make announcements soon about his South Carolina campaign staff, which he hinted needed to have a strong understanding of African American issues and perspectives.

"Our on the ground organization is so important," he said. "So much in relationships has to do with the trust that is built over time. While I can't personally engage with every voter or every organizer in these communities, I can make sure to build a team who will have those engagements and then create as many in-person interactions as possible for me, too."

Editor's note: A previous version of the story misstated a criminal justice position the candidate discussed. This story has been updated to reflect Buttigieg's opposition to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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