About a dozen black female small-business owners were gathered in a South Carolina shared workspace on Tuesday night for a networking event when they were told the newest 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, Deval Patrick, would be stopping by to introduce himself.
When Patrick walked into the back of the room mid-meeting, the women turned around as he sheepishly apologized for his tardiness and short stay.
"Don't mind me!" he told them.
But the black former Massachusetts governor is eager to get their attention — and their vote.
Launching his bid for president less than three months before the Iowa caucuses, Patrick is betting that he can make his case to a broad coalition of voters, including many who remain undecided or uncommitted to anyone in the crowded field of candidates. To win South Carolina, which holds the first Southern primary of 2020, he would need a base of support from the black voters who comprise roughly two-thirds of the state's Democratic electorate.
"I'm running for president because those values of community, that we have a stake in each other and of generational responsibility, I think, are frayed in the country," Patrick said Tuesday night in Columbia. "I come in humbly. ... I want to be a listener."
Arguing that voters are just now beginning to tune in, with the first votes less than 100 days away, Patrick has said he will have visibility when the populace is really paying attention. His late entry, though, makes it that much tougher to raise the awareness that his campaign will need to meet the polling and fundraising thresholds for future debates.
This week, Patrick launched a tour of early-voting states, visiting Nevada and Iowa before South Carolina. It's a state where former Vice President Joe Biden has maintained a significant polling lead for months, both across all spectrums and with black voters specifically.
It's also a place where the two other major black candidates in the race — Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris — have struggled to gain momentum, despite months of campaign events.
Eyamba Sowers didn't know Patrick was coming to Tuesday's networking gathering but saw his visit as a pleasant surprise. The real estate agent said she related to him as someone who was also raised in a single-parent home, and she was impressed with his status as the country's second elected black governor.
"He has me thinking now," said Sowers, who is also considering Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. She said if Patrick can get his message out, he's someone voters could see defeating President Donald Trump in 2020 — her top priority.
Beth Ruffin said she didn't know much about Patrick before Tuesday's event, but he left her intrigued and wanting to learn more. A former Beto O'Rourke supporter, she is a voter back on the market since his departure from the presidential race.
"It sounded like strong black women raised him," said Ruffin, who owns a diversity and inclusion consulting firm and headed out for Patrick's second stop at a nearby restaurant, where he was warmly greeted by a crowd of several dozen. "I want to see how he translates that into policy."