By now you’ve likely heard about Pete Buttigieg, the thirty-seven-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is running as a Democrat for President in 2020.
Buttigieg’s story is a study in contrasts. South Bend is a blue city in a red state; a rust belt city staging a comeback. Buttigieg, or “Mayor Pete” as he is affectionately known, is gay in a state that passed the anti-LGBT Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015. He’s Episcopalian in a city whose most prominent employer is the preeminent Catholic university, Notre Dame. He’s a polyglot in a state that made English its official language in 1984.
Is he a Midwest mayor with progressive values, or a data-driven, technocratic politician with a tin ear on issues of racial justice?
Buttigieg holds a degree from Harvard, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, in a state where less than a fifth of people hold four-year degrees. He spent three years likely making six figures at McKinsey & Company, analyzing data on energy and economic development, only to return to South Bend, run for mayor, and win in 2011 at the age of twenty-nine. He took a leave of absence during his first term to serve seven months in Afghanistan as a Naval Reserve intelligence officer.
He speaks like a progressive on immigration, climate change, labor unions, health care, LGBT federal protection laws, background checks on guns, and supporting a wealth tax.
All caught up?
Good, because as a transplant to Fort Wayne in the Hoosier state, about ninety miles from South Bend, I’ve spent the last several weeks talking to locals and reading everything I could find about Buttigieg. And I have found myself returning to one question: Is he a Midwest mayor with progressive values, or a data-driven, technocratic politician with a tin ear on issues of racial justice?
Pay attention, people. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
During his two-term tenure in South Bend, Buttigieg launched several initiatives aimed at turning this sagging, post-industrial municipality around. The city has suffered since auto manufacturer Studebaker closed its plant in 1963. In 1950, half of the city’s residents were employed in manufacturing, which plummeted to 16 percent by 2000. In 2015, the city experienced its first increase in population after hemorrhaging approximately 30,000 people since 1960. Today, about 102,000 people reside there.
One of Buttigieg’s largest undertakings is the 2013 Smart Streets Initiative, which funneled $21 million in bonds and $100 million in private money into building downtown hotels, apartments, and restaurants, while doing away with one-way streets, creating bike lanes, and widening sidewalks to make the district more friendly to visitors. Last year, he declared the initiative a success, saying it attracted “over $90 million in private investment” to downtown. There is no doubt that South Bend is becoming both a cultural and technological center to the region.
Molly Moon, a self described “old hippie” and forty-year resident of South Bend, moved to the city in her twenties. She recalls when “the only thing moving was some litter blowing across the street.” She praises Buttigieg’s Smart Streets Initiative as his “most notable” accomplishment and credits it for a positive energy she feels within the community. Living walking distance from the downtown library, Moon says she spends more time downtown now, appreciating the wider sidewalks and safety she feels when shopping and dining.
Moon acknowledges that other mayoral projects, especially his 1,000 properties in a 1,000 days initiative, has been met with frustration by some city residents.
In February 2013, Buttigieg set out to either rehab or demolish 1,000 abandoned or vacant homes throughout the city. The program concluded in 2015, ahead of schedule, with 1,122 homes impacted: 40 percent were repaired, 60 percent demolished. But demolishing the homes in predominantly black and Latinx neighborhoods was costly to the people who live there, and the initiative has been criticized for disproportionately impacting communities of color.
Certainly, abandoned homes were becoming an issue with crime rates rising and vacant homes being used for illegal activity. However, according to an investigation by Buzzfeed, the project was not among the recommendations made by a task force the mayor commissioned. And he pushed it forward before the report was completed.
Buttigieg noted in 2013 that every effort would be made to have a predetermined use for the land once a home was razed. A land bank plan was discussed to make abandoned lots the property of the city. Black and Latinx residents of these neighborhoods, reluctant to see homes demolished, asked for assistance in rehabbing the properties. Match-granting programs were made available to provide upwards of $10,000 to help rehab properties, but they require residents to match of at least “20 percent of the grant, address all code violations, and agree to live in the house for at least three years.”
Few people in impoverished neighborhoods have $2,000 dollars sitting around. Homes in predominantly black neighborhoods are often passed on between generations as a way to amass wealth, and losing the even derelict houses was costly.
In the face of criticism, Buttigieg has admitted to missteps, but are his efforts gentrifying these neighborhoods to match a newly minted downtown?
Buttigieg acknowledged the impacts of racism and segregation recently in an interview with The New Yorker, offering ideas for how to respond: “Perhaps targeting housing aid in certain ways, by neighborhood, perhaps, making sure that grant funding available to schools is allocated in a way that takes into account which school districts are in areas that were deliberately harmed by intentional, race-based racist policy, or maybe other dimensions that haven’t really been fully analyzed or mapped out.”
As recent studies have highlighted, white people are returning to urban centers and causing land values to outpace some black residents’ ability to remain.
Despite the mayor’s lip service, black and Latinx residents remain frustrated. South Bend is 62 percent white, 27 percent black, and 11 percent Latinx. Since the conclusion of his 1,000 days initiative in 2015, neighborhoods in northwestern South Bend have complained about the problem of lead poisoning from razed homes and delayed reactions from city hall.
Recently, Buttigieg spoke at the National Action Network’s conference spelling out a five-point agenda for black Americans “that all of us care about: homeownership, entrepreneurship, education, health, and justice” in addition to a “study of reparations.” A 2018 survey revealed citizens’ greatest concerns were safer neighborhoods, better maintenance of roads, sidewalks, and critical infrastructure.
While the progressive talk is there, a recent Monmouth poll found “only two percent of nonwhite voters” nationwide said they would vote for him. His base remains overwhelmingly white.
As a resident of Fort Wayne for the last fourteen years, I have watched my adopted hometown go through a similar revitalization. The downtown, a ghost town after 5 p.m. when I moved here in 2004, now booms with trendy farm-to-fork restaurants, a burgeoning micro-brewery scene, coffee shops, theaters, public art installations, a winning minor league ball team nestled in the heart of downtown, and an exciting new repurposing of a vacant GE plant called Electric Works.
If he can listen to and act on the needs of minority communities and the poor, he has the potential to work across the divisions currently tearing us apart.
I reached out to Paul Helmke, director of the Civic Leaders Center at Indiana University, and mayor of Fort Wayne from 1988 to 2000. Helmke, a Republican, is one of several mayors credited with laying the groundwork for Fort Wayne’s celebrated turn-around. He stressed that a strong and vibrant downtown, new and advanced manufacturing, and strong neighborhoods are all essential to economic growth. Without this combination, you risk “a doughnut effect. Downtowns and neighborhoods need to benefit the citizenry as a whole,” says Helmke.
The connection between neighborhoods and leadership is tantamount to turn-around-success in mid-sized midwestern cities like Fort Wayne and South Bend, Helmke says, emphasizing “bottom-up buy-in in order to make change sustainable.” Without buy-in from the people, Helmke warns that city government runs the risk of creating a silo effect.
“You need to be able to look beyond the one thing you are measuring,” because data needs to be paired with human input and feelings, he says.
Helmke acknowledges that “leftover remnants of racism and segregation” need to be addressed when planning. “When [tractor manufacturer] International Harvester left Fort Wayne, it was particularly hard hitting in communities of color. The new economy doesn’t pay the same wages and there is a racial tinge” that must be addressed, he noted.
While it is refreshing to hear Buttigieg acknowledge his missteps as mayor, I still find myself wondering whether he is really as progressive as he claims to be. Take the issue of affordable housing.
According to Jim Williams, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of St. Joseph County, the county where South Bend resides, 14,000 families in the county spend 50 percent or more of their income on housing; the national recommendation is no more than 30 percent. Despite the county’s best efforts, Williams tells me that his agency “can’t build our way out of the problem . . . a multi-pronged campaign of rehab, repair, and new ways of financing” are crucial.
Habitat for Humanity was involved indirectly in the mayor’s 1,000 days initiative, Williams says. It offered salvage services and made collected hardware available for affordable resale to affected neighborhoods. It helped build multiple housing units that are energy efficient and use the latest technology.
This is essential, Williams explains, because the fair market price for a two-bedroom apartment rental in Indiana is $809 a month, requiring the renter to make $15.56 per hour, $32,000 a year based on a forty-hour work week. Habitat homes are increasingly energy efficient and cost $500-$600 a month, including taxes and insurance.
This is in stark contrast to the new apartments in downtown South Bend going for $1,000 to $1,800 a month. Was this factored in to Buttigieg’s data-driven approach?
Buttigieg’s charming personality wins people over. Moon enthusiastically told me that she sees “no end to his capability and potential. He’s smart and not going to provoke. He gives an invitation not a provocation. I trust his intelligence and heart.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks has noted that Buttigieg “doesn’t sound like an angry revolutionary,” and Indianapolis Monthly suggested he may have the right personality to counter the abrasive and brash personality of Donald Trump, without being scary.
Yes, Buttigieg is progressive by Indiana standards, but I worry about his technocratic leanings at a time when we need some progressive audacity. If he can listen to and act on the needs of minority communities and the poor, he has the potential to work across the divisions currently tearing us apart.
In the end, I know no candidate is perfect, but I disagree with anyone comparing Buttigieg’s measured ease with that of Barack Obama. I find him more akin to the calculated dexterity of Bill Clinton. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.
Buttigieg’s head is progressive, but his heart? Maybe, maybe not.