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Let’s Hear It for South Bend

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Let’s Hear It for South Bend

Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s longshot presidential candidacy highlights the challenge of being a talented Democrat from Indiana. February 7, 2019
Politics and law

Throwing his hat into the 2020 ring, South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg—whose last name is pronounced BOOT-edge-edge but who is commonly known as “Mayor Pete”—is seeking to be the youngest, first millennial, and first gay president. He faces long odds, but his audacity and ambition mark him as someone to watch.

Buttigieg has the impressive résumé one would expect from an aspiring presidential candidate. Born in South Bend, he was valedictorian of his high school, then went to Harvard and received a Rhodes Scholarship. He became a Naval Reserve officer and served in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer. He’s worked in elite business and Democratic political circles, doing a stint at McKinsey and Company and on John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

Mayor of South Bend is an odd platform from which to pursue the presidency. Being a mayor of any sort is typically a dead-end job. Only three presidents have ever served as mayor, the last being Calvin Coolidge. Perhaps because of resentment against big cities, mayors aren’t often elected governor of their states, either. The Washington Post observed that making that leap is “rare.” Cory Booker’s rise from celebrity mayor of Newark to the U.S. Senate perhaps inspired others to see City Hall as a stepping stone to greater things, but it remains an atypical trajectory.

For Democrat Buttigieg, running for mayor may have reflected limited political options. Indiana is solid red, with Republicans dominating the state since the election of Mitch Daniels as governor in 2004. Buttigieg tried running for state treasurer in 2010 but was crushed by Republican Richard Mourdock, getting only 37.5 percent of the vote. Though being gay may seem like a negative in socially conservative Indiana, the real scarlet letter for Buttigieg is the “D” after his name.

By all accounts, Buttigieg has performed well over his two mayoral terms. He has worked to develop new downtown housing, changed the city’s streets to reflect current best practices (such as converting one-way streets to two-way), invested in city parks, and tried to spur innovation in both government-service delivery and the regional high-tech economy. On his watch, the South Bend region won a state competition, the Regional Cities Initiative, generating a cash infusion for several development programs.

But South Bend is a deeply troubled Rust Belt city that has never recovered from the failure of hometown automaker Studebaker in 1963. Studebaker’s closure cost the city 7,000 jobs—8 percent of its workforce. The city’s other assets never really paid off. South Bend has a rail connection to Chicago, but it’s too far to commute. It has the University of Notre Dame, but the campus has long isolated itself from the larger city, even going so far as to get its own “Notre Dame, IN” zip code. Even a super-mayor couldn’t fundamentally transform a city like South Bend in just two terms. No matter how well he performs, Buttigieg’s visible accomplishments remain modest, and South Bend is no boomtown.

Indiana has other high-quality, dynamic mayors. Kokomo mayor Greg Goodnight has accomplished similar things as Buttigieg, and he has his own compelling personal story, too. What these other mayors lack is Buttigieg’s connections to the national Democratic establishment and its PR machine. During his mayoralty, Buttigieg has received extensive positive coverage—blatant puff pieces, in many cases—in the national media, from Frank Bruni columns in the New York Times to coverage from the Washington Post, Politico, Rolling Stone, MTV, and even the Times’s weddings section. Such coverage is disproportionate to Buttigieg’s accomplishments.

In a crowded Democratic field, Buttigieg’s candidacy doesn’t stand out. Being a white male can’t help him. Gay candidates may be a novelty in Indiana, but they’re becoming old hat in much of the rest of the country. What Buttigieg needs is a track record of accomplishment in a bigger arena—such as the governor’s office. Unfortunately for him, he hails from a state where that path isn’t feasible, so he’ll have to find another. Not yet 40, he still has lots of time, and his obvious talent and drive make it likely that we’ll be hearing more from him in the years ahead.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

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