The Mayor of South Bend, Indiana

Who?

That’s the first question I asked myself eight years ago when looking at the South Bend Tribune’s list of mayoral candidates for the city I had been living in for several years. The “who” was soon followed by, “and how do you pronounce that name?” And then, “he’s how old?”

I mean, this 29-year-old whippersnapper with a name that sounds like a word caught up in a stuttering fit wanted to be the mayor?

So, I dug in. “What has this young fella done?”

Harvard grad. Okay, impressive.

Oxford Rhodes Scholar. Okay, very impressive.

 A Naval Intelligence Officer who served in Afghanistan and attained the rank of lieutenant. Alright, I’m listening.

And so, I did. I listened. I immediately found Pete “whatsisname “ to be very bright. He was born here. He also seemed to be something that is all too undervalued in today’s society. He seemed good.

But he was going to have to be more than a good person to reverse this city’s course. Were he to become our mayor, he would be taking over a city in decline. Newsweek had just named South Bend one of ten dying cities in the United States the January preceding the election:

“More than 50 years ago, South Bend, Ind., was a hub of manufacturing, largely due to the presence of the Studebaker car company. But by the early 1960s, the company had closed up shop in South Bend for good, plunging this area into a long and steep downturn that continues today, though it’s a bit more muted than in previous decades. What is particularly troubling for this small city is that the number of young people declined by 2.5% during the previous decade, casting further doubt on whether this city will ever be able to recover.” – Newsweek, January 21, 2011.

The population of the city peaked in 1960 with a census total just north of 130,000 residents. Whoever the new mayor was to be in 2012, they would inherit a city depleted to a population of 104,000 with an unemployment rate of 9.6 percent. Downtown South Bend was a shell of its former self. Many of the shop windows were dark. The streets were a series of confusing one-ways that did not invite shoppers or shop owners. The centerpiece of downtown was the lovingly restored Morris Civic Auditorium, a landmark venue surrounded by dust and tumbleweeds. If not for the University of Notre Dame, there would be little of distinction to mention about the city at all.

So, I voted for the youngster. It seemed like a good time to take a chance. Apparently many of my fellow residents felt the same, because “Mayor Pete” – as we would dub him – won the race with 74% of the vote. He became the 2nd youngest mayor in the city’s history (the other dated back to the 1880’s) as well as the youngest current mayor in the country of a city with more than 100,000 residents.

It would not be long before he faced his first crisis. Buttigieg would demote the city’s first black police chief after a federal investigation uncovered the chief’s participation in the improper and secret taping of fellow police officers. It is believed that these recordings involved white officers making racist statements while on the job. The recordings themselves remain sealed as the legality of their release is still under question. No one denies that the chief was involved in the recording scandal, but the mystery around the case created concern about Buttigieg within the black community as well as the city as a whole.

Buttigieg’s first major initiative for the city was known as 1,000 properties in 1,000 days, a project that would demolish structures around the city that were either abandoned or not up to code. The effort was largely deemed a success, with the significant caveat that it did involve moving some of the city’s residents from their homes. When presented with this concern, the mayor produced $2 million dollars for the purposes of rehoming displaced citizens and constructing affordable housing.

His efforts to bring new business to the city began to produce results. Buildings that once sat empty with broken windows became hubs for tech and biotech companies. Others were torn down and apartments now stand in their place.

For these results, Buttigieg was named the 2013 Mayor of the Year by govfresh.com, tying for the award with NYC’s Michael Bloomberg. That same year he would be called to active duty, serving a 7-month tour in Afghanistan. He would remain the city’s mayor, but he took no pay during his absence.

Ahead of his re-election campaign, with the Supreme Court ready to rule on the legality of gay marriage, Mayor Pete came out to the city. In an elegantly worded op-ed that ran in the South Bend Tribune, he explained his prior reticence to do so and why he believed he now had to share this part of his life with us.

He wrote:

“But it’s clear to me that at a moment like this, being more open about it could do some good. For a local student struggling with her sexuality, it might be helpful for an openly gay mayor to send the message that her community will always have a place for her. And for a conservative resident from a different generation, whose unease with social change is partly rooted in the impression that he doesn’t know anyone gay, perhaps a familiar face can be a reminder that we’re all in this together as a community.”

In 2015, he was re-elected. This time with 80% of the vote.

As the city’s economic comeback continued, many of us suspected our bright young mayor was destined for more. In a state so red I often call it the “Mississippi of the Midwest,” it was unclear what that next step might be. Running statewide for senate or governor would be potentially fraught for an openly gay man in the state of Indiana, and the mayor had little interest in competing for a House seat that would leave him as a back-bencher in congress.

In 2017 he turned his attention to the vacant position of the DNC chair. While his longshot candidacy did not result in a victory, his thoughtful demeanor and clear-eyed candor made a strong impression on the party. If he was not “one to watch” before, he certainly was now. He was clearly an ambitious man. And we would soon learn just how ambitious he could be.

As a mayor of a mid-sized town, to decide to run for president of the United States is an audacious act. Even more so considering that he would be running as an openly gay man who had just married his companion of nearly four years, junior high school teacher Chasten Glezman.

Most of us in town assumed Mayor Pete would have no chance, but believed he would make a strong impression, raise his profile, and likely end up with a cabinet seat in the next Democratic presidency. It was too much to think that more was possible. The same scoffing that took place when he ran for mayor was in play again.

“Who?”

“How do you pronounce that name?”

“He’s how old?”

Only this time you could throw in “He’s the mayor of South Bend? Really?

As people began to learn about him, attitudes began to change. And when he spoke, things really began to change – just the way they did here, but on a national scale.

This is still a longshot candidacy (although it seems less so with each passing day). Mayor Pete knows how unique his story is. He likes to joke that he’s “definitely the only left-handed, Maltese-American-Episcopalian-gay-millennial-war veteran in the race.” But let’s be clear. Something is happening here.

I see it not only in my fellow residents who have an almost uniformly warm opinion of him, but from my friends outside of my city, on social media, and now in the polls. He is being taken seriously. Because he answers questions in a straightforward manner. Because he exudes authenticity and decency. Because he is extremely intelligent and relatable. Because he is a serious man.

Yesterday he officially announced his candidacy for the highest office in the land. He happened to pick the absolute worst day of weather we will likely have until next winter – mid-30’s with wind and stinging rain. The bad luck would force the event to move indoors at the old Studebaker factory, which now houses tech companies (there is some beautiful irony in that).

My friends and I arrived early but we still found the line to be a long and winding one and the old factory was soon filled to capacity. Most of the crowd (us included) had to be turned away. We had the option to watch from a screen outside, but discretion became the better part of valor and we decided to go home and watch the livestream.

I did not feel all that disappointed. Aside from being glad to avoid the horrendous weather, I was just thankful so many people showed up. At roughly 1:45, my mayor’s event began. He took the stage after a number of supporters gave fine – if occasionally rambling – introductions. Some of the natives were getting restless. But Pete’s delay in taking the stage was in part due to him going outside to speak to the masses of people who did not get in and were standing in the cold.

When Pete finally came onstage I was good and ready. Understand, as a resident of this city, it is hard to get your head around what is happening right now. The mayor of our city is a viable candidate for the president of the United States. Despite our modest population. Despite his youth. despite his being gay.

While it was no surprise to anyone that Pete would be announcing his official candidacy for the office, the speech he gave was more significant for how it was delivered than for the “I am running” announcement it contained. And it went over like gangbusters. Not only in the room, but on the cable networks and all over social media. There were times when it felt like a West Wing episode come to life. Or maybe a Jimmy Stewart film. Mayor Pete Goes to Washington we could call it. The speech was bold, but kind. It challenged the state of our nation while also speaking to our better angels. It was the polar opposite of what we get from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on a daily basis.

It’s hard to say what will come next. “The night is dark and full of terrors” as they say on Game of Thrones. This may well just be a moment for Pete, and it may not get any better than this. It’s not dishonest to say that this day could be the peak of his campaign. Right now Mayor Pete is the fascinating new thing. There will be tests of his record and his composure. The scrappy national newcomer will quite rightly be challenged, and if his ascent continues, he will likely become a target.

Every candidate must face these rigors. Mayor Pete should be no different. The wonder of this moment is in its possibility. It is no longer ridiculous to believe that this good and decent man who speaks eight languages, is openly gay, and hails from a city still on a comeback trajectory could become the next president. The mind reels. I have to catch my breath at times thinking about it.

I came to this area at the age of four. My single mother moved us from the small coal-mining town of Pikeville, Kentucky to the only slightly larger one of Niles, Michigan. A city located just across the border from South Bend. To me, this was the “big city.” As such, I developed a bit of an animus towards it. I felt like we were looked down upon. It irritated me that we had to drive 20 minutes to go to the mall or to the movies. I developed a strong dislike for Notre Dame, a university that represented the sort of privilege a lower class kid from the south could never understand.

After college, I moved across that border and into the city of South Bend. That place I held no great esteem for. It is no small measure of irony that my favorite part of Pete’s speech came not so much from the parts that reflected what he would do for the country, but what he has already done for our hometown.

He spoke of growing up believing that the only way to be successful if you were from South Bend was to “get out.”

“And some of us did,” he said.  Then he leaned forward into the microphone creating a brief, but beautiful pause before saying, “But some of us came back.”

My chest quivered and there was damn sure something in my eye as those words left his lips. You see, civic pride in this town was something that came in fleeting strokes to me, if at all. In that moment I felt it more powerfully than at any time in my life, for any place I’ve ever lived. South Bend has been my home for over a decade and a half. Never has there been a time that I’ve been proud to say so.

Until today.

Author: David Phillips

2 thoughts on “The Mayor of South Bend, Indiana

  1. Beautifully said David. I was born and raised in South Bend and I too sat watching Pete with tears in my eyes. Brought on by the exceitment and the love I have for my hometown certainly but also in the hope i feel for all of us in the country everytime I hear him speak. I think this is his time .

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