The most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of

Updated 1:00 p.m.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg had to balance a tricky set of themes in his State of the City speech on February 12. Not only did he have to lay out his agenda for the upcoming year, he also had to address the fact he wouldn’t be in South Bend for most of it. “With the minor exception of some home improvement projects waiting for me at my house," he said, "nothing underway in this City will stop or pause during the next seven months, and I know I will return home to an improved administration and an even stronger community.”

Two weeks later, he handed the city off to newly appointed Deputy Mayor Mark Neal, who would watch over the Indiana city of 101,000 while Buttigieg was serving in Afghanistan. Buttigieg is currently training in Chicago, readying to deploy as an "individual augmentee," or a unit of one, doing intelligence work with the Navy Reserves.

Courtesy of Pete Buttigieg's office
Courtesy of Pete Buttigieg's office

The 32-year-old lieutenant is far from the first elected official to be deployed during their tenure. Attorney General Beau Biden, a member of the Delaware National Guard, was deployed to Iraq in 2008. In 2010, 26 state legislators currently serving had been deployed with the National Guard or Navy Reserves while in office. However, Buttigieg's office thinks he may be the only mayor who has ever been deployed while serving. It's not the only superlative Buttigieg has won since he was elected mayor of South Bend in 2011 with 74 percent of the vote. Last year, GovFresh, an organization that recognizes "public servant innovators" and "civic entrepreneurs" voted New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Buttigieg their mayors of the year. Buttigieg is also the youngest mayor of a city of over 100,000, something that people never fail to comment on.

In July 2012, when NPR came to cover the future of the city's abandoned Studebaker factory -- which was being transformed into a data center after 50 years of falling apart -- the reporter asked, “How old are you? You don't look like you're old enough to be the mayor of anything.” The South Bend common council also takes issue with Buttigieg’s age, according to Jack Colwell, who has written about local politics for the South Bend Tribune for over 45 years. "Even though this kid is smart and a Rhodes scholar, they were like, ‘What does this kid know about anyway?’”

Buttigieg's youth is also likely the reason he got elected by such a large margin. His chief of staff, Kathryn Roos says, with young politicians, "people elect you because they want change. Even if you don’t run on change, your face kind of says that.” Change happens to be another reason the city council, made up of eight Democrats and one Republican, has often clashed with Buttigieg. The election that Buttigieg won in 2012 was the first open mayoral race in 24 years. The city had gotten used to a very predictable set of decision makers, a mold that Buttigieg didn't fit into. "One of the obstacles he's faced," says Colwell, "is that some people still want to do things the old way. His approach is somewhat different from mayors of recent past." His approach is also different than many other mayors and people in government, which is why the nation should keep an eye on South Bend and Buttigieg, because both he and the city are unlikely to pause over the next seven months, or the months that follow. And, as much as the council has grumbled about Buttigieg's tactics, they've generally given a resounding yes to most of Buttigieg's policies. "That’s a pretty strong symbol for moving the city forward," says Mike Schmuhl, Buttigieg's former chief of staff and campaign manager. (Editor's note: Schmuhl worked at the Washington Post, in the public relations department for a period last decade.)

The city of South Bend has had a similar trajectory to many other cities in the Midwest. One factory used to anchor the town, the Studebaker plant, until it closed on December 20, 1963, and sent 30,000 people fleeing from the town over the next 50 years. Joseph Buttigieg and his wife Ann moved to South Bend in 1980 after he got a job as a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, located at the outskirts of the city. At that point, the city was still trying to figure out how to move on." The city was more visibly battered by the departure of Studebaker," Buttigieg says. "Downtown continued to lose ground for awhile." Things began to improve by the end of the decade though. "When Peter was growing up, things were changing slowly. But the real transformation has happened in the past few years. For the last three or four years, graduate students have started living downtown."

The recession sent things spinning in the other direction for awhile -- the unemployment rate went over 12.5 percent in 2010 and the current median income is around $32,000 --  and the city hasn't figured out to do with the houses left empty by the evaporating population, houses that attract crime and violence. In 2012, South Bend had 18 homicides, the highest number they've had in over a decade. Despite this, locals say they've noticed a difference, even if progress isn't happening at a speed they'd prefer.  The rest of the country hasn't had quite as nuanced a reaction.

In 2010, South Bend earned a spot on Newsweek's list of "America's Dying Cities." A dozen more articles followed deliberating whether the city was deceased, in the process of expiring, or simply in a downturn. "Mayors love lists when they say something good about their city and hate them when they don’t," says Pete Buttigieg. "Luckily we haven’t had a bad list since I started office."

He's very happy to put many of the projects he's started since January 1, 2o12 on a good list, though. Buttigieg says his overarching philosophy toward politics is defined by two different strains. There's the moral and the historical thread, and there's the technical.

The first set of principles he honed during his long training in politics. He was valedictorian and class president of his graduating class at St. Joseph's High School in South Bend. That year, he also won the national John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest, which he wrote about Bernie Sanders. At Harvard, where he graduated in 2004, Buttigieg was active with the College Democrats and president of the Institute of Politics Student Advisory Committee. In 2005, he headed to Oxford University to study politics, philosophy and economics as a Rhodes Scholar. He worked on congressional campaigns in Indiana, Arizona, and New Mexico, and John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. In 2009, he ran for Indiana state treasurer, losing to future failed Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, before handily winning a crowded Democratic mayoral primary in 2011.

The technical, the day-to-day muck of governance, his sense of that was fine-tuned in his equally robust consulting career. He worked with the Cohen Group, a consulting firm started by former secretary of Defense William Cohen, and worked at McKinsey doing work on energy and grocery pricing. When it comes to being a mayor, Buttigieg thinks that his work at McKinsey might have been the most “intellectually informing experience" he's had.

One of the things Buttigieg and his administration are proudest of is the 311 line they debuted in February 2013, which hopes to make the process of dealing with the day-to-day needs of South Bend residents more efficient. When Roos described its effect, she said it was an effective way of reaching "customers, or residents" and an excellent way of collecting data on the government's performance. Buttigieg called 311 a "customer service" line, phrasing he's used before. One way it's been especially effective is finding out what houses are being missed in traffic pick-up, something that would have taken far longer to figure out if they hadn't noticed a trend in the data. Last December, the city fielded its 100,000th 311 call, and they had plenty of data to parse about how it's worked.

Source: The City of South Bend
Source: The City of South Bend

Last year, Code for America, colloquially known as "Peace Corps for geeks," chose South Bend as one of the ten cities it would advise that year. They created an app, CityVoice — similar to the one used in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Blight Status — that helps residents identify the many vacant properties left behind after the manufacturing exodus. The same month that Buttigieg debuted the 311 hotline, the "1,000 properties in 1,000 days" plan was announced, which gives a deadline to the city's push to deal with vacant houses. The Vacant and Abandoned Housing Task Force used the data from CityVoice and other sources to compile a 78-page report of the best way to deal with the lots.

Using data has been an integral part of politicking in the 21st century, but it's been most visibly used on the campaigning end of things. The 2008 Obama campaign showed the power of charts and targeted outreach and databases, and candidates at the federal level who eschew technology are vanishing. State and local races can still run mainly on campaign signs and sweat, but Buttigieg's landslide victory likely owes a lot to the fact he imported a talented campaigning team and tech know-how to South Bend. Using technology and open source data has also become an integral part of governing at the federal level and in big cities. Former Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley was one of the first people to use data in city government in a big splashy way, debuting the CitiStat program in 1999. In the program's first year, the city saved $13.2 million. Other big cities — San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia — have since created civic innovation offices, but many smaller cities haven't, likely due to the fact they are known for brain drain more than bringing in new, young talent. Both Buttigieg and Schumuhl think that cities are increasingly becoming the place politically-minded young people go if they want to test their skills and make policy.

"The old line of thought used to be that local government is the bush leagues," Buttigieg says. "But the kinds of people I’ve been able to bring on my time, to this modest-sized Midwestern city, shows that things are changing. People see the opportunities that exist at this level. In the 60s, you would go to NASA, in the 90s you would go to Silicon Valley, now these people are interested in working in local government."

Schmuhl adds, "I can totally see Pete saying that South Bend is a perfect sized city to try new things. It’s at the center of the country, it has only 100,000 people, there’s lots of land, lots of resources, and a low cost of living. People have moved to South Bend to work in the mayor’s administration or people have moved from the private sector in South Bend to work in local government instead." Deputy mayor Neal is one of those people. He has no previous political experience, but has had a successful consulting career.

As innovative as Buttigieg's modus operandi may be for South Bend, his constituents are probably not noticing the methodology. But, they do notice things are changing, which is why they voted for him anyway."They hear about these new projects, of course," Colwell says. "They may not understand them, but they hear the stories and realize it’s something new that sounds good. That perception helps his image."

Buttigieg can't be reduced to a data evangelist alone though. He thinks one of the biggest pitfalls of problem solving through graph and regression line is "where you could confuse policy or moral challenges for technological issues.'"

And Buttigieg's first two years haven't been perfect. Soon after taking office, he demoted the city's first African American police chief after a federal wiretapping investigation in the department. Some council members and residents have accused his programs — especially the vacant housing initiative — of gentrifying the city. "Who knows what will happen while he’s gone," Colwell says. "He’s generally been received pretty well.  Business leaders like him. He’s worked a great deal with the University of Notre Dame. He may lose some of that luster while he’s away if the potholes get worst. People could say, ‘Why is he in Afghanistan while the roads aren’t being shoveled?'"

Regardless of how the city fares in the next seven months, that military background also makes the mayor stand out from the rest of the army of data-happy millennials that define the younger strata of the Democratic Party. If he has larger ambitions, and the local whispers about whether he would campaign for governor or Congress this year assume he does (he isn't running for either, and has instead already announced his intention to run for re-election in 2015), it's clear military experience has never hurt the ambitious.

When Buttigieg was at Harvard, he participated in protests against the war in Iraq, and even penned a few lines of President Bush-inspired poetry, a skill he perhaps absorbed from being around his literary-minded father (Sample rhyme: "But please, make no mistake here, / no Misunderestimation. / Reversing four years of my rule / Would take a generation."). "The decision to serve needs to be independent of your politics," however, he now says.

On his mother's side there is a long tradition of military service — his grandfather was a surgeon in the military, and his great-uncle died in a plane crash while training during World War II. He would visit his grandmother at Fort Bliss in Texas as a kid. The moment that led to him deciding to sign up for the Navy Reserves in 2009, he says, happened while canvassing in Iowa for Barack Obama in 2008. He was sent to knock on doors in three of the state's poorest counties, Many of the people who answered were in the armed forces. They were really young,” says Buttigieg, who was in his mid-twenties at the time. “They looked like kids to me.”

He also thinks that if more elected officials had served or had family members in the military, we may have never had gone to war in Iraq at all. As the Pew Research Center pointed out in a report last year, "Not all that long ago, military service was practically a requirement for serving in Congress." Now, only about 20 percent of both chambers of Congress comprises veterans. Veterans also make up a smaller percentage of the general populace, something that worries Buttigieg, especially given how far away the conflicts in the Middle East can feel for people in the United States. "It’s important for people to recognize that this war is being fought in, yes, a specific place, but also at home too," he says. "I’m worried about how remote this war is for a lot of people. In South Bend, me deploying reminds people that this is still going on."

The war in Afghanistan is ongoing, yes, and still very dangerous for soldiers. American casualties still tally up by the dozen on a weekly basis, and those Americans who do get injured are getting wounded more severely. Insurgents have been fighting so long, they've made the maiming more efficient too.

Just like he absorbed knowledge during his time in the private sector that’s been put to use during his tenure in South Bend, Buttigieg hopes that he can bring back some of the things he learns in Afghanistan — which he had previously visited before, along with Iraq, as a contractor — to the Midwest too. "Military service might sound like a totally different environment, but every experience you fall back on later, it makes you smarter," he says. "Why wouldn’t that be true of the military too?"

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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