The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In South Bend, Pete Buttigieg sees a template for improving America

Residents of South Bend, Ind., gather downtown to participate in Easter activities and play Pokémon Go on April 13. (Whitten Sabbatini/For The Washington Post)
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — On a recent weekday in South Bend — before its mayor, Pete Buttigieg, announced he was seeking an audacious promotion — a handful of more mundane occurrences unfolded around the city. People parked their cars downtown and walked into restaurants to eat. Baseball fans streamed into Four Winds Field for Opening Day of the South Bend Cubs’ season.

A decade ago, these would have been considered minor miracles. At its lowest point, downtown South Bend was devoid of traffic, let alone pedestrians or new development, said Peg Dalton, who has owned a diner there since 2001 — “before it was cool” to do so. Now, there were luxury condos going up along the St. Joseph River.

It’s hard to quantify how much of South Bend’s turnaround would have happened anyway as the country recovered from the Great Recession — but Dalton is certain Buttigieg made a difference by selling the idea of South Bend’s potential to anyone who would listen.

“It’s like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ right? It’s hard to look back and say what would happen without this one person,” Dalton said. “But I would compare it to that. . . . He has been so impactful.”

In the past few weeks, Buttigieg has broken through a crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates, rising from an unknown whose name was butchered on cable television — if it was mentioned at all — to someone who reported more than $7 million in first-quarter fundraising and is attracting hundreds to his campaign rallies.

Along the way, slices of him have emerged: Pete the polyglot, Pete the 37-year-old millennial gay Episcopalian feuding with fellow Hoosier Vice President Pence, Pete the Harvard-Oxford-McKinsey consulting alum.

But his favorite nickname, Mayor Pete, conjures not only his current title but his argument for election: He has campaigned on a promise to reinvigorate the nation as he has the fourth-largest city in Indiana.

“The horror show in Washington is mesmerizing. It’s all-consuming,” Buttigieg declared at his formal campaign announcement. “But starting today, we’re going to change the channel.”

The Washington Post traveled to South Bend, Ind., to talk to locals about Mayor Pete Buttigieg joining the crowded field of Democrats running for president. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post, Photo: Whitten Sabbatini/The Washington Post)

South Bend offers a glimpse of what his channel would look like: Since he took office in 2012, the city’s economy has stabilized and improved, the unemployment rate falling by more than half. Downtown South Bend, once a ghost town, is now home to multimillion-dollar construction projects. New apartments, retail and tech companies have transformed formerly crumbling factories.

But the growth has been uneven: South Bend’s nonwhite and lower-income residents have not benefited from the city’s progress at the same pace as white and wealthier ones. A scandal involving a popular former police chief early in Buttigieg’s first term threatened to derail his relationship with the African American community. And Buttigieg — part of a vanguard of technocratic mayors driven by data — has admitted he had to learn some important lessons about race “the hard way” while in office.

Those stumbling blocks could pose a problem for Buttigieg as he seeks the nomination of a party that is substantially nonwhite. He also acknowledged “the audacity” of running for president as a mayor. In South Bend, Buttigieg oversees about 1,000 employees and a city budget of $380 million — about 0.01 percent of the annual federal budget.

However, he has said his leadership of the city — and its subsequent turnaround — can offer valuable lessons for other parts of the country.

When Buttigieg decided to run for mayor in 2011, South Bend had just been featured in a Newsweek article titled “America’s Dying Cities.” It was an inglorious low point for a once-thriving Midwest manufacturing hub that had been home to the Studebaker automobile company. In 1963, Studebaker shut down its massive South Bend factory after six decades — and just like that, severed the city’s main economic artery.

Despite the proximity of the University of Notre Dame to the city’s north, nothing seemed to stop South Bend’s ensuing decline. Its population dropped from a peak of about 130,000 residents in the 1960s to 102,245 in 2010. The companies and people who fled left hundreds of vacant homes and millions of square feet of empty commercial space — vacancies that also seemed to sap the spirit of those who remained, said South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Rea.

“I don’t think people thought Studebaker was coming back, but these [empty buildings] were hulking reminders of a more prosperous time,” Rea said.

Buttigieg, then 29, entered the race for mayor after moving back to South Bend, his hometown, while he was working as a consultant for McKinsey. He used his youth as a selling point, promising he could turn South Bend around by tackling decaying neighborhoods, luring new companies to the city and driving policy through data and technology. He won the three-person race with a simple majority of the vote.

Early in his first term, Buttigieg publicly announced a startling goal: The city would “address” in 1,000 days at least 1,000 of the abandoned houses that dotted the city and had stymied previous administrations for decades. A task force identified 1,900 houses throughout South Bend as “vacant” (unoccupied for more than 90 days) and 1,275 houses as “abandoned” (vacant and with a code violation left unaddressed for more than 30 days). The city’s code enforcement team visited every abandoned property on the list, starting each house down a bureaucratic path that would end in demolition if the owner was unresponsive.

Near the end of Buttigieg’s first term, the mayor stood in front of a house that had been renovated as part of the initiative and declared the city had in fact “addressed” 1,122 houses in 1,000 days, exceeding his original goal. Of those, about 40 percent were repaired, and 60 percent were ultimately demolished.

Buttigieg touts the initiative as one of the “biggest lifts” of his first term, one that “disproportionately benefited minority and low-income residents . . . facing the real harm that comes from these high vacancy rates and the blight around them.”

But some residents of those neighborhoods, largely populated by black and Latino residents, say the initiative hurt some of the families it meant to help.

On a recent afternoon, South Bend council member Regina Williams-Preston pointed out ubiquitous gaps on a stretch of Florence Avenue in the predominantly black Kennedy Park neighborhood. On one lot, a few concrete steps led only to an expanse of grass, as if the house itself had been raptured. It was one of the hundreds of homes that had been demolished in Buttigieg’s initial push.

Williams-Preston, who is running for mayor, accused Buttigieg and city officials of being so eager to reach their goal that they overlooked nuance. Not all the vacant homes were the product of absentee landlords, as the city claimed, she said. What the city saw as an abandoned home — or worse, the beginning of blight — was in some cases a house that had been passed down through generations or belonged to someone struggling in South Bend.

“I think oftentimes in city government, we are looking through a middle-class lens and don’t really see the value or the purpose of things in the same way,” Williams-Preston said.

It is personal for her: Williams-Preston said her family fell on hard times after her husband got sick and became unable to maintain three properties they had bought as investments. The city eventually demolished them.

“I thought, surely there’s programs and things available to help. And what I found was, there really wasn’t,” Williams-Preston said.

Still, she credits Buttigieg for listening to residents’ needs. There are now more resources in place to help homeowners connect with repair funds. Community groups and nonprofits have also stepped in to help.

“Over the course of this time that we’ve been working, I’ve seen a change,” she said. “I’ve seen him be able to kind of stop, reflect and go in a different direction based on what he now knows are the needs of the community. And I think that’s a sign of a good leader.”

Buttigieg acknowledges that he and his administration “learned as we went.” He says that he still believes a “primarily enforcement-driven approach” — applied equally across the board — was the best one to take when dealing with South Bend’s decades-old housing problem.

“Anytime you’re not enforcing on somebody for any reason, you’re also running the risk of doing something unfair, right?” Buttigieg said. “Even when you try to do it in the name of mercy, which is what motivated us to try to work things out . . . you’re then running the risk that you could be accused of arbitrary or selective enforcement. When at the end of the day, we just want to make sure these properties are being taken care of. And if they’re in rough-enough shape that they can’t be saved, then they’ve got to go, because they’re actively causing harm.”

Now, he said, the city needs to invest in those neighborhoods “so that they grow in a way that benefits those who are still there.”

The backlash echoed criticism Buttigieg received shortly after taking office, when he demoted then-South Bend Police Chief Darryl Boykins, who is black, after learning the FBI was investigating him for allegedly recording police officers without their consent. The move set off multiple legal battles and protests from those who demanded Buttigieg’s administration release the tapes, believing they contained racist comments. Boykins was not charged and eventually received $50,000 from South Bend to settle claims related to the dispute, according to the South Bend Tribune.

Buttigieg has refused to publicize the recordings — or even listen to them — saying it would be illegal under the federal Wiretap Act.

“These tapes have not only affected his relationship with the African American community but splintered the African American community itself,” said Isaac Hunt, an activist who works with the mayor and the police department on an initiative to reduce gang violence. “Some people will support Buttigieg and some people say, ‘Release the tapes!’ To this day, it’s still splintered.”

Hunt believes the recordings should be released but also effusively praised the new police chief Buttigieg hired, Scott Ruszkowski, who he thinks has forged much stronger ties to the African American community.

Views of the economic changes in South Bend during Buttigieg’s tenure also diverge.

In downtown South Bend, there is little dispute there has been a turnaround. In his second term, Buttigieg proposed $26 million in renovations to the city’s streets, including — controversially — installing roundabouts and converting two main one-way thoroughfares into narrower, two-way streets. Dubbed “Smart Streets,” the project instantly attracted complaints from people who feared it would slow their commutes.

Traffic does now move more slowly through downtown, but the streets also have become more pedestrian-friendly. According to the city, the renovations helped attract more than $100 million in investments downtown, from hundreds of new apartment units to a new Aloft Hotel in South Bend’s tallest building, formerly a long-vacant 25-story office tower.

Arguably Buttigieg’s biggest win came after a pair of entrepreneurs bought the old Studebaker factory in 2015, converting the enormous brick building into a glass-faced technology hub. It was there that Buttigieg formally launched his campaign for president.

The improvements remain spotty: The historic Blackstone-State Theatre is dark, its marquee displaying a phone number and the words “FOR SALE.” Empty storefronts still abound. But the changes represented “a big shift,” said Rob DeCleene, executive director of the city’s tourism agency.

“For those of us who were born and raised here, and for those who choose to make it home, you were literally seeing progress,” he said.

Outside of downtown and its adjacent industrial parks, however, dissatisfaction is more evident. Buttigieg has boasted of bringing the city’s unemployment rate down from about 12 percent when he took office to 4.1 percent last month. But it is higher among minority and lower-income residents. In 2017, Buttigieg’s administration commissioned a report, “Racial Wealth Divide in South Bend,” from the Washington-based think tank Prosperity Now.

“We commissioned it knowing that it wasn’t going to look great but that we had to have the data on the table to make better decisions,” Buttigieg said. “We really try to face those issues so we can be intentional in dealing with it.”

Indeed, the numbers were grim: Forty percent of African Americans in South Bend fell below the poverty line, nearly twice the national average.

For a city that was 27 percent African American and 13 percent Hispanic, the problems were deep and painful, said Christina Brooks, the city’s first diversity and inclusion officer, hired by Buttigieg at the beginning of his second term. But she gave the mayor credit for presenting the report at a public meeting, where he received plenty of angry but crucial feedback.

“I think what separates Mayor Pete from the pack is the fact that he’s really willing to have tough conversations where most politicians would kind of shy away from that,” Brooks said. “He was willing to say, ‘Okay, the buck stops with me. Let’s see what we can do to fix it.’ ”

In the wake of the report, the city opened a resource center for small businesses and is overhauling its purchasing and contracting practices to ensure minority business owners are fairly represented. Others changes have been less sweeping, Brooks said, but no less important, like working to bring “In the Heights” and “Topdog/Underdog” to the South Bend Civic Theatre so that its repertoire reflects South Bend’s population.

The irony is not lost on Buttigieg that what he considers his greatest achievement is impossible to prove with the metrics he covets. It is, he said, “just the fact that the city kind of believes in itself again. Most people think it’s on the right track.”

“It’s probably the most important thing we’ve achieved,” he said. “And I don’t know how to show it. But you can’t miss it.”