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'Mayor Pete's' improbable rise stirs applause, frustration in hometown

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

South Bend, Indiana — Between bites of a grilled cheese sandwich, Oliver Davis leans back in a corner booth and remembers his first encounter with Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor turned candidate for president.

A few feet away in the kitchen of the Sunrise Cafe, a diner on South Bend's west side, a "Pete 2020" yard sign hangs. It's one week after Buttigieg pulled what appeared to be a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses and catapulted to the front of the Democratic field.

Ten years earlier, Indiana Democrats tapped then 28-year-old Buttigieg to be their nominee for state treasurer, the state's top investment officer.

“I was sitting in the convention meeting, and I heard someone say he was from South Bend," recalled Davis, who was then a South Bend Common Council member. "I said, ‘He is?’”

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks to supporters at Iowa State University during a town hall style meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, in Ames, Iowa.

Buttigieg's quick rise from political unknown to city leader to presidential contender has put his hometown in the spotlight, prompting self-reflection by city residents and national scrutiny of local debates that would normally stay within a city's borders.

The former mayor's opponents question whether he's ready to go from leading a city with about 1,100 employees to leading the federal government, which has 2.1 million civilian employees and 1.4 million active duty military personnel. They also have raised issues about Buttigieg's alleged lack of sensitivity in handling certain police issues affecting African-Americans.  

But Buttigieg's supporters tout him as an outsider who has gotten things done and stands out from the other Democrats. They have said the media have improperly portrayed race issues in South Bend.

“We have people in the inner belt of D.C. We have billionaires," South Bend Common Council President Tim Scott said of those running against Buttigieg. "We have everybody who really doesn’t look like us."

Five of the nine South Bend Common Council members who served when Buttigieg finished his tenure as mayor in 2019 have endorsed him for president.

South Bend, which is five miles from the Michigan-Indiana line, has a population of about 103,000 people, similar in size to Lansing.

While the city is home to the University of Notre Dame, it has a blue-collar heritage. The automaker Studebaker was based here for decades before closing its South Bend plant in 1963.

During the great recession, Newsweek included South Bend in a January 2011 list of “America's dying cities” — an article that many residents still mention nine years later.

At the height of the city’s economic struggles in 2011 the unemployment rate in the South Bend-Mishawaka area reached above 12%.

It was the same year Buttigieg launched his campaign for mayor. Buttigieg told the local newspaper, the South Bend Tribune, “Some say you need to wait in line. I don't think we can wait to bring new ideas to the city.”

A mural near downtown South Bend says, "South Bend is our town." The city's residents are watching this year as their former mayor, Pete Buttigieg, campaigns for president.

With a calm and inclusive approach to politics, Buttigieg became the unlikely winner of the mayor’s race and an even unlikelier presidential candidate, competing against U.S. senators, two billionaires and a former vice president. Last Tuesday, he finished a close second behind 78-year-old Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire primary.

It’s not surprising to Buttigieg’s supporters in South Bend, such as Michael Yoder, whom Buttigieg inspired to become a voter. Yoder launched a podcast about Buttigieg and South Bend called “Good Guy Pete Podcast.”

“It has always been: Get Pete in front of people and he’s going to connect,” Yoder said, sitting in a coffee shop in South Bend on a Monday afternoon. “I watched him transform a city and give hope.”

How he became 'Mayor Pete'

Before he was the mayor, Buttigieg was valedictorian at the city's St. Joseph High School, a student at Harvard University and a Rhodes scholar.

He worked on other candidates’ campaigns and for the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where he specialized in economic development and logistics. He became a candidate himself when he ran for Indiana treasurer in 2010.

Multiple South Bend area Democrats said they weren't aware of Buttigieg before his 2010 treasurer campaign. Dan Parker, the then-chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, said he didn't know Buttigieg “at all” before 2009, when he came to Parker’s office to talk about a run for treasurer.

"I kinda looked at his resume and said, 'You might be a little overqualified for this,'" Parker remembered. 

In this Jan. 10, 2019, file photo, Mayor Pete Buttigieg talks with an Associated Press reporter at his office in South Bend, Ind.

Ahead of his campaign, Buttigieg papered a 2009 gathering of Indiana Democratic activists with signs promoting himself.

“Who in the hell is Pete Buttigieg?” Parker said one Democratic official asked him at the time.

Buttigieg focused much of his 2010 campaign on the incumbent’s lawsuit to try to block Chrysler’s 2009 bankruptcy. Treasurer Richard Mourdock argued that state pensioners, who were creditors holding Chrysler debt, had lost their rights during the bankruptcy, according to the South Bend Tribune. Buttigieg said Mourdock had wasted money by putting politics before what was best for the state.

But Mourdock easily defeated Buttigieg by 25 percentage points in a year that saw Republicans make gains across the country. It included Republicans taking back the governor's office and state House in Michigan.

During a December Democratic debate, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar criticized Buttigieg for his 2010 loss and said “winning matters.”

But Parker, who has endorsed Buttigieg, brushed off the criticism, noting that Indiana is a Republican-leaning state.

“I can name the Democratic presidential candidates who have won Indiana on one hand,” Parker responded, listing Barack Obama, Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt. He added, “Indiana is quite more Republican than Minnesota.”

From left, Democratic presidential candidates businessman Tom Steyer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., stand on stage, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, before a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.

Within months of the treasurer loss, Buttigieg set his sights on becoming mayor of his hometown. His three opponents in the Democratic primary included a sitting state representative, Ryan Dvorak.

While Buttigieg could now become the first openly gay president of the United States — he married a Michigan native, Chasten Glezman, in 2018 — he hadn’t come out in 2011. The local gay rights organization South Bend Equality endorsed Dvorak. Buttigieg came out in 2015.

But Dvorak spent weeks away from the campaign trail ahead of the primary as Democrats in the Legislature fled the state to try to prevent Republicans from having a quorum to take up anti-union legislation.

The situation worked to Buttigieg’s advantage. He also raised a significant amount of campaign money, got the support of the local chamber of commerce, and even persuaded some Republicans to cross over and vote for him in the primary. Buttigieg won the primary and sailed to victory in the general election.

Record as mayor

Over his eight years in office through the end of 2019, the city’s unemployment rate plummeted and South Bend saw business development. It coincided with the national recovery.

Yoder, the South Bend supporter, pointed to a coffee shop and park near the city’s downtown that he said weren’t there before Buttigieg became mayor.

Buttigieg launched initiatives to tear down problem vacant buildings and improve streets in the city’s downtown, which included turning some one-way streets into two-way streets.

At a recent city council meeting, the city’s new mayor, James Mueller, who took office at the start of the year, touted the city’s financial position and AA bond rating.

South Bend Councilwoman Lori Hamann listens during a budget presentation that touted South Bend's AA bond rating on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. Hamann is one of the current city council members who have endorsed former Mayor Pete Buttigieg for president.

But critics question how much credit Buttigieg deserves for the city’s growth. While Buttigieg brought energy to the city, the groundwork for the city's economic recovery was laid before he took office, said Oliver Davis, a former South Bend council member.

Previous officeholders drove South Bend through the “storm” of the economic recession and tax changes that limited local government revenue in Indiana, he said.

“Now it’s sunshiny, and everybody gave him the credit for the drive,” said Davis, who has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden for president.

Davis also highlighted an extended fight in South Bend over recordings of city police officers that Buttigieg’s administration refused to release but the city council attempted to subpoena. Davis said the belief among some residents is the recordings could include racial comments made by officers. The fight dates to Buttigieg’s first year in office.

Oliver Davis, a former South Bend Common Council member, is backing former Vice President Joe Biden for president, not former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Davis is seen here in South Bend on Feb. 10, 2020.

South Bend council member Henry Davis directed a reporter to tweets he sent out this month after a debate in New Hampshire, where U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts challenged Buttigieg’s response to a question on the arrest rates of minorities for marijuana crimes in South Bend.

"As a Councilman in #SouthBend, I know why @PeteButtigieg looked like a deer in headlights last night when talking about systemic racism in the South Bend Police," Henry Davis tweeted. "He tolerated it, he perpetuated it, and last night he lied to millions of Americans about it."

Oliver Davis said he and Henry Davis — the two aren’t related — and two other African-American council members who served with Buttigieg haven’t endorsed him for president.

Asked what he would say to minority voters in Michigan, where black voters in Detroit could be key to winning the state in November, Oliver Davis said of Buttigieg, “He is working to improve, but the record speaks for itself.”

Buttigieg supporters acknowledge there’s work to be done on race issues in South Bend, which is 26% black, according to Census Bureau data. But the supporters also say there’s widespread support for the former mayor despite critics who’ve been spotlighted by the national media.

Buttigieg won re-election in 2015, beating Henry Davis with 78% of the vote in the Democratic primary.

In 2019, Mueller won while campaigning that he would extend Buttigieg’s efforts, Yoder said. Mueller got 37% of the vote in a crowded Democratic primary. Oliver Davis finished fourth with 6%.

National media stories about Buttigieg have focused on his critics while neglecting his supporters, Yoder said.

“I am around people every single day in this community that love and support Pete,” Yoder said.

The fight over the police recordings was about Buttigieg’s belief that the recordings themselves violated federal law that prevents people’s conversations from being unknowingly recorded, said Scott, the council president who has endorsed the mayor.

Pastor Michael Patton, the head of South Bend’s NAACP, declined to go into the details of Buttigieg’s handling of race-related issues.

“Our city has moved past that,” Patton said in response to multiple questions. “And we’re healing.”

Is he ready?

It wasn’t difficult to find Buttigieg supporters on the ground in South Bend.

Brenda Wilson, a Michigan native who helps run the Sunrise Cafe, said most people in the city are excited, like she is, about Buttigieg’s campaign. Individuals who don’t think Buttigieg did much for South Bend haven’t examined his record, Wilson said.

“Go Pete!” she said from behind the diner’s counter.

Outside a library in South Bend, Kyle Newell, 24, said Buttigieg had good support in his native city.

“He seems like an honest guy,” Newell said.

Many allies see Buttigieg’s approach to politics as a positive compared with President Donald Trump’s outspoken and divisive rhetoric. But the same allies have a harder time with questions of whether Buttigieg has enough experience to be president.

Some members of the South Bend Common Council have endorsed former Mayor Pete Buttigieg for president while others haven't. At left in the photo is Henry Davis, a councilman who has criticized Buttigieg. At right is Tim Scott, council president, who is backing Buttigieg.

During a Feb. 10 council meeting, Mueller gave his annual financial presentation. There were three local TV cameras at the meeting. As president, the eyes of the country would be on Buttigieg.

“If you are looking for the person with the most years of Washington establishment experience under their belt, you’ve got your candidate, and of course it’s not me,” Buttigieg said during the New Hampshire debate. “The perspective I'm bringing is that of somebody who’s life has been shaped by the decisions that are made in those big white buildings in Washington, D.C.”

Scott echoed that idea.

It’s not the size of the city’s budget that matters, Scott argued, but what matters is the way Buttigieg goes about his business. Scott said, “I think people are gravitating to that.”

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Pete Buttigieg

Job: Former South Bend mayor

State: Indiana

Age: 38

Claims to fame: He would be not only America’s first openly gay president. but its youngest commander-in-chief. He is considered a well-spoken campaigner who served in the U.S. Naval Reserve and can appeal to different generations.

Biggest weaknesses: His lack of political and legislative experience, as well as his controversial handling of police issues, including firing South Bend’s popular African American police chief and a white officer’s killing of a black resident.

Detroit debate moment: “We are not going to be able to meet this moment by recycling the same arguments, policies and politicians that have dominated Washington for as long as I have been alive. We've got to summon the courage to walk away from the past and do something different.”

Candidate visits to Michigan: July 21 private fundraiser in Saugatuck; July 24 NAACP forum in Detroit, July 30 Democratic debate in Detroit; Nov. 24 private fundraiser in Detroit.