SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The news was alarming: Children in some of South Bend’s poorest neighborhoods had a higher rate of lead poisoning than children in Flint, Michigan.
At a meeting of anxious parents, it was revealed that two county agencies had lost funding to help combat the poisoning. Pete Buttigieg, then the city’s mayor, did not control the agencies, but his response at the meeting still struck some as a politician passing the buck. “We have state representatives. We have a state health department. We have a new governor,” he said. “They should be hearing from our community.”
Buttigieg eventually took action, after pressure by an ad hoc community group and by The South Bend Tribune, which editorialized that it was “time to get cracking” on lead. The mayor won $2.3 million from Washington to repair rundown homes with peeling paint, the cause of the lead poisoning.
“His first instinct was to say, hey, we’re covering what we’re in charge of,” said Kathy Schuth, who organized the meeting of parents in January 2017 where the mayor spoke. “And his second look at it was to say, this is a big problem. And there are ways we could play a strong role.”
The experience Buttigieg gained as a mayor is a central part of his pitch as a presidential candidate, but it has also recently become a bull’s-eye for some of his rivals, who are trying to undercut his momentum in the race by sowing doubts about whether he is prepared for the Oval Office. On Tuesday, Buttigieg finished a strong second in the New Hampshire primary and a week earlier he made history as the first candidate to prevail in the Iowa caucuses whose highest elected position was mayor. In both states he beat a former vice president and several other veteran politicians, in large part with a message about what he learned as the son of a struggling Midwestern city who was determined to turn it around.
But his record has also been challenged by some city residents and activists, particularly on problems facing black residents, and he has had some of his toughest moments in the race trying to explain his record on policing. In a debate in New Hampshire last week, he was pressed about an increase of arrests of black people for marijuana possession during his years in office, which he struggled to explain as a collateral effect of a crackdown on violent crime.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, fighting for the same center-left voters as Buttigieg, released a digital ad ahead of New Hampshire voting openly mocking Buttigieg’s qualifications. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota compared him in the debate to President Donald Trump: “We got a newcomer in the White House and look where it got us,” she said.
If elected, Buttigieg will be 39 on Inauguration Day, the youngest American leader in history. He is well aware that, if he continues to notch victories after Iowa, there will be voters wondering if a millennial who was mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city is truly qualified for the presidency.
A close look at some key episodes for Buttigieg shed light on how he governed, struggled and grew over his eight years in office, in particular in responding to people’s needs and frustrations. The Harvard-educated, former McKinsey consultant came into office with a technocratic approach to leadership, and some of his actions are revealing about challenges he faces today — particularly his low support among African-Americans nationally and the perception that he is most at home with his fellow elites.
Buttigieg argues that as mayor, he had to produce results every day. “If there’s a problem, you don’t get to say it’s fake news and pretend that the pothole isn’t there,” he told voters in South Carolina this fall. “You gotta go out there and deal with it.”
If Buttigieg has won over some voters with that emphasis on problem-solving, his experience working with a Democratic-majority city council to tackle road repair is a far cry from negotiating with a Republican-led Senate on a complex legislative agenda. No mayor has ever ascended directly to the Oval Office. South Bend’s budget is about one-sixth that of San Antonio when it was led by another Democrat who sought the nomination, Julián Castro.
Rahm Emanuel, a former mayor of Chicago who served as chief of staff to President Barack Obama, said voters should not measure a candidate’s readiness for the presidency in years or previous jobs.
“Nobody walks into the office on Day 1 with what they need to know, full stop,” Emanuel said. “Do you have the experience to be self-reflective, to have the capacity to grow and to have judgment, and are you secure surrounding yourself with other smart people?”
Serving as America’s youngest mayor of a city over 100,000, Buttigieg grew in office, becoming a more patient listener and more respectful of those with clashing views, supporters and critics agreed in interviews. For someone who by nature runs emotionally cool, given to detailed, clinical answers when challenged, Buttigieg came to embrace that a mayor’s primary job was not to always have the factually correct answer — as in the lead paint case — but to empathize and provide inspiration.
“It has been a hard thing for Pete and for his administration to not be a top-down policymaker, but to find ways of gaining authentic input from large varieties of people,” said Schuth, director of Near Northwest Neighborhood Inc., which helps low-income residents buy homes. “And I absolutely think he’s gotten better at that.”
To Oliver Davis, a former South Bend city council member who often tangled with Buttigieg, the former mayor is simply too green. “He’s ready on Day 2” of a crisis, is how Davis, who supports Biden, put it.
Jake Teshka, the only Republican on the South Bend city council, said that Buttigieg won his support for one initiative to address lead poisoning — requiring city inspections of rental units — over Teshka’s initial objection. “He brought in the Real Estate Investors Association, he brought tenants’ rights groups — folks from the far right, far left, he brought them to the table,” Teshka said. “We got down and dirty with it and the mayor was supportive through the whole thing.”
Teshka said Buttigieg had more relevant governing experience than either of the past two presidents, having managed more than 1,000 city employees and reached out to opponents to get things done. “Objectively speaking and removing partisanship, I’d say, look, it’s more scalable than being a reality TV star,” he said.
A downtown revival next to blighted neighborhoods
One morning in 2013, in his first term, Buttigieg arrived at work in the County-City Building, his body braced against the whoosh of five lanes of one-way traffic. “It’s always bothered me we have this racetrack downtown,” he told his senior staff.
Streets in the central city were designed to speed drivers to homes and shopping in the suburbs. Buttigieg believed a revival of South Bend, which Newsweek had named a “dying city,” should start with the urban core.
His Smart Streets initiative proposed converting central thoroughfares to allow two-way traffic, and adding bicycle lanes, trees and on-street parking, all to slow vehicles and encourage pedestrians.
The project was debated through 28 public meetings over two years, many of them heated, as Buttigieg and allies pitched Smart Streets as an investment that would ignite growth. Opponents called the $25 million project an expensive folly.
“There was a lot of resistance because he was spending a lot of city money,” said Mark Neal, a former city controller. “People said the streets are perfectly fine.”
Smart Streets finally passed the once-recalcitrant council. Big real estate projects flowed: the conversion of empty office buildings to residential lofts, a makeover of an abandoned Studebaker factory, a new Marriott Aloft hotel in the city’s tallest building that might have become a tear-down. There was more than $100 million in private investment, according to the city, though some of it might have happened anyway as South Bend emerged from the Great Recession. Today, about 1,000 people live downtown compared to virtually zero when Buttigieg took office.
Jeff Rea, president of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Buttigieg earned the support of business people, many of them Republicans. “He’s been able to get folks who in theory should oppose him on partisan ideological grounds to the table over shared goals in terms of economic progress and improved sense of pride and momentum,” Rea said.
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One developer, Frank Perri, recalled that Buttigieg reached out to him about a downtown parcel he owned on the St. Joseph River that had sat empty for more than a decade. “What do we have to do to make this happen?” the mayor asked. Perri repeated what he had told earlier mayors without success: He wanted the city to build underground parking on the site.
Buttigieg agreed. The city provided a $5 million incentive. Perri’s seven-story glass-wrapped building, the Cascade, is set to open soon with condos starting at $625,000. “It will pay off in spades in taxes,” Perri said.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the reason South Bend is coming around,” he said of Buttigieg.
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But drive a few blocks west of downtown, into poor and largely black and Hispanic neighborhoods, and there are no $625,000 condos. You see many crumbling houses and empty storefronts instead. Prosperity has not been shared equally in South Bend, a source of criticism and resentment by some in minority communities.
“It’s hard for me to say this is a turnaround city,” Regina Williams-Preston, a former member of the council, said in an interview last spring as Buttigieg was officially starting his presidential bid.
Buttigieg’s major initiative for low-income neighborhoods was attacking blight by bulldozing vacant and abandoned houses. Postindustrial South Bend, like many Rust Belt cities, had lost nearly a quarter of its population. The West Side especially was dotted with empty houses that attracted squatters and crime.
Setting an ambitious goal to address 1,000 houses in 1,000 days, Buttigieg was able to meet it two years later, in September 2015, ahead of schedule. According to the city, none of the demolished houses were occupied.
Some critics said the city reached its target by too aggressively issuing code violations, and when poor landlords could not pay, calling in the bulldozer. “Our housing stock is being demolished and there’s no program to replace it with affordable housing,” said Henry Davis Jr., a black member of the city council.
Stacey Odom, a resident of the West Side, was working on a rundown house she had bought for about $6,000 when she learned it was on the list to be demolished. Odom, who hoped to move into the house, staked out the County-City Building. When she spotted Buttigieg walking with other officials, she jumped out of her car.
“I told him I am having all of these problems with the City of South Bend wanting to tear down houses,” Odom said. “He was with a group of people and they were not happy that he took the time to stop and speak with me. But he still stayed there and listened to everything I had to say. He said, ‘Well, we can work on that together.’”
Odom got her home off the demolition list by showing she was slowly fixing it up. She credits Buttigieg with listening to people like her and adjusting the city’s policy from tearing down houses to rehabilitating many of them. The city introduced a series of home repair programs that currently award $1 million to homeowners.
“He’s a person willing to change, willing to listen, willing to work with you and make things better,” Odom said.
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‘Sometimes you’ve got to take a few cuts to understand’
The question of whether the mayor improved the lives of poor minority residents of South Bend is complicated. For his presidential campaign, Buttigieg’s team released a sweeping program known as the Douglass Plan last summer, aimed at addressing structural racism in America. But it rings hollow to some at home because he did not always live by its promises there.
Federal data shows that poverty for black households citywide dropped by six percentage points from Buttigieg’s first year in office through 2018, compared to a 2.3% drop nationally.
Yet, while the Douglass Plan calls for directing 25% of federal contracts to companies with black and women owners, in South Bend, a city-commissioned study found that between 2015 and 2017, no city contracts went to black-owned businesses.
Supporters of the mayor in the black community said African-American poverty has long persisted in South Bend, but Buttigieg was the first mayor to pay for studies to fully expose it, which led to policies aimed at a solution. The “disparity study” of city contracting noted that 12% of contracts went to firms owned by women and minorities other than African-Americans. It prodded the city to pass an ordinance to raise contracts with minority- and women-owned firms to 15%.
Sharon McBride, a black council member and Buttigieg supporter, said the former mayor’s plan to revive the downtown ahead of residential neighborhoods was the right call. “In order to live, your heart has to function,” she said. “If you don’t have businesses coming in to sustain revenue, you can’t thrive. And now we are a thriving city.”
For all of Buttigieg’s focus on the economy and housing, his time as mayor remains defined in the eye of the nation by his management of the police. Perhaps the most searing crisis he handled in office came last summer after the fatal shooting of Eric Logan, a black resident, by a white officer. At a chaotic community meeting, residents called on the mayor to fire the police chief. When a representative of the Rev. Al Sharpton tried to speak, the crowd booed him down, saying this was a South Bend affair.
Davis, the former council member, said the outbursts reflected years of frustration by some black residents over Buttigieg’s oversight of the police, including his demotion of a black chief and the failure to increase diversity among officers.
But Davis also praised the mayor for directly engaging with anguished residents. “In many cities — you’ve seen the Ferguson, Missouris — you didn’t have city leaders there in the heart of it,” he said.
Days after the shooting, community members gathered on the basketball court of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center to share stories about the toll of gun violence in minority neighborhoods, as city officials listened.
“I was watching Pete and he was listening, he was really concerned about people as individuals — in their take, in their experience of what has gone on,” said Tim Scott, president of the city council. “I think he saw it in probably a little more visceral way than he has ever before.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to take a few cuts to understand what’s going on, and he did that,” he said. “I’ve seen Pete grow in the eight years he’s been here: better outreach, better communication within the African-American community.”
Many black leaders in South Bend said their former mayor’s standing among minority residents has been distorted as he stepped onto the national stage, with a handful of dissident voices from the city providing an echo chamber in the news and on social media.
In December, pushing back, a group of black South Bend leaders — council members, pastors and the president of the local NAACP — held a public forum to dispute what they called the false narrative of Buttigieg’s lack of minority support at home.
“I have no idea where all this I-don’t-like-Pete attitude came from,” said Muhammad Shabazz II, a county employee. Shabazz used to set up lemonade stands with other community activists at scenes of gun violence, to get residents and victims’ family members to talk to one another. “Every time we did one of these things, Pete would somehow find his way there,” he said.
In a bizarre scene, a protester seized the mic at the black leaders’ forum and demanded, “Who chose these black leaders?” while an older woman raised her cane to shoo him away. The protester, who wore a Black Lives Matter shirt, was a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Days later, a founder of the Black Lives Matter group in South Bend, Jorden Giger, held a rally for Sanders at which Buttigieg was denounced.
Nonetheless, Giger said in an interview that if Buttigieg becomes the nominee, he would vote for him.
“He can be pushed,” he said. “It takes him a while to get there, but he can be pushed.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .