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Buttigieg’s 2020 Campaign Built on Grand Talk and Small Successes

The South Bend mayor will officially launch his candidacy for president in a city that mostly approves of his leadership ... mostly.

Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg is this week’s breakout star of the 2020 Democratic primary. The mayor of South Bend, Indiana has won fans from across the political spectrum due to his quick wit, his seeming post-partisanship, and his appreciation of some very fat books. His willingness to spar with the religious right has made him, in short order, arguably the most prominent openly gay politician in the country. And then there is his youth. At 37 years old, Buttigieg is roughly half the age of Donald Trump, and represents a generational break from party stalwarts like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

In the end, however, Buttigieg’s own presidential case might rest less on his charisma or solid millennial status, and more on his experience in office. And that office is mayor of a midwest city of 102,000 people. “Look, you could be a senior senator and have never managed more than a hundred people in your life,” he told voters in New Hampshire last month. “I not only have more years of government experience than the president of the United States, but I have more years of executive experience than the vice president of the United States, and more wartime experience than anybody who arrived in the office since George H.W. Bush.”

While rivals like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren talk about the policies they would push through the federal government if elected, Buttigieg keeps pointing to the small city he has led since 2011. “We propelled our city’s comeback by taking our eyes off the rearview mirror, being honest about change, and insisting on a better future,” he said, walking through an old factory that has been converted into a technological hub, in a Twitter video teasing the presidential announcement he is expected to make on Sunday.

A survey of the achievements Buttigieg touts on the campaign trail and in his recently published memoir, Shortest Way Home, show a young, data-obsessed mayor eager to transform South Bend from a dying Rust Belt hulk obsessed with its past into a beacon of the “Silicon Prairie.” South Bend did transform under Buttigieg’s leadership, thanks in part to his data-heavy approach, though perhaps not to the extent that it is sometimes portrayed.

A 2011 Newsweek article, “America’s Dying Cities,” is the gracenote to Buttigieg’s political career. That story, published shortly after Buttigieg lost in his first run for public office (Indiana state treasurer), placed South Bend as eighth, in an awkwardly conceived list of dying cities. “What is particularly troubling for this small city is that the number of young people declined by 2.5% during the previous decade, casting further doubt on whether this city will ever be able to recover,” the authors wrote. For Buttigieg, it was a call to arms. A week later, he announced his candidacy for mayor.

The argument that Buttigieg made while running for mayor bears some similarity to the one he makes now that his eyes are set on the nation’s highest office. South Bend was too fixated on the past; it needed to enter the present, embracing technology and the service sector, and finally leaving behind the Studebaker auto plant that had been the engine of the city’s prosperity before closing in 1963. Perhaps more than anything, it needed to embrace big data, which would efficiently point the city government to the best ways to fight crime, reduce blight, and improve the city’s economy.

Buttigieg, a former consultant at McKinsey & Company, a massive and often unsavory worldwide management consulting firm, rhapsodizes about data’s power to transform local governance. He talks at length about his approach in Shortest Way Home. “Ultimately, the rise of more data and technology presents tremendous opportunity for cities to be smarter and more efficient in their operations—and therefore become healthier, safer, better places to live,” he writes. “But after taking office, just as quickly as I learned the power of data, I also learned to be mindful of its limitations, and aware of the problems it will not solve. And I learned to maintain some level of respect for the role of intuition.”

In office, however, he often followed the data where he believed it led. Buttigieg’s first major program in office—1,000 Homes, 1,000 Days—was meant to address the large number of abandoned homes in South Bend, whose population had declined by about 30,000 since Studebaker’s closure. The goal, which Buttigieg describes as being “almost childlike in its simplicity” was to demolish or renovate 1,000 homes in 1,000 days. “In a lot of places, people just ignore [persistent issues like abandoned buildings],” Sam Cencelles, a community organizer at South Bend’s La Casa Amistad told me. “[Mayor Buttigieg] has tried to tackle some very major economic, societal challenges that cities like ours face and haven’t even talked about.”

Critics of the program point to its disproportionate effect on minority homeowners, some of whom saw properties they had purchased, with the intention of refurbishing and renting, targeted and, ultimately, demolished. Although South Bend still has a housing surplus, the decision to focus on homes on the black and Hispanic west side has also led to gentrification. “I mean, if someone is always coming to improve—what they think is an improvement for you, but what is actually gentrification—and you have to move somewhere else, you’re going with nothing,” Stacey Odom, a South Bend resident and homeowner who currently runs a community development nonprofit, told BuzzFeed.

“Where is your home? It’s going to be nowhere,” said Regina Williams-Preston, a city councilwoman who is currently running for mayor, expressing frustration at Buttigieg’s priorities. “I’m just constantly telling the administration,” she said, “If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always gotten. And what we have always gotten in cities all across the country is displacement of poor people and people of color.”

The South Bend residents I spoke with, however, highlighted the success of the program. “Pete was coming in after some really big impacts, given the population loss and the age of the housing stock—but also on the heels of the foreclosure and mortgage crisis,” Kathy Schuth, executive director of Near Northside Neighborhood told me. South Bend lost 30 percent of its population in the first decade of this century. “Some big moves were needed and I think he was trying to do something that wouldn’t just piecemeal it, but would have a big impact.”

“It wasn’t perfectly implemented,” said Schuth, “but it gave a needed boost and has had a lot of good effects.”

“It really was an achievement,” longtime South Bend Tribune columnist Jack Colwell told me. “Driving around the city you would see those empty buildings.” Colwell described many of the buildings as “not the type of places you would want people to reside.” Because of the declining population, the columnist said, there just wasn’t the need for the surplus. “They didn’t tear them all down—they fixed up some. But I think it was a good thing to be rid of them.”

Buttigieg also used “big data” (an idea popular with the McKinsey set) to update the city’s sewers and streets. “Smart Streets,” an initiative aimed at changing traffic patterns and converting one-way streets into two-way thoroughfares in an effort to increase business and development, was initially controversial—no one likes road work—but is now applauded. “In an amazingly short period of time, it just rocketed the city forward. It really is truly impressive,” St. Mary’s College political science professor Patrick Pierce told me. “You saw an increase in the number of businesses that were located downtown—just a lot more activity. Now, it’s pretty lively late into the night. There’s a lot of stuff going on culturally; it’s a lot more interesting.”

The effort to turn South Bend into a “Silicon Prairie” hub, however, has had more mixed results. In Shortest Way Home and in campaign statements, Buttigieg touts his efforts to modernize the local economy, repeatedly walking through a former Studebaker plant that has been converted into a data center. “Inside a vast, empty space with high brick walls and broken windows, civic and business leaders gathered around the dream of a different economy, perhaps even a “Silicon Prairie” of data centers in our part of the Midwest,” he wrote in his memoir. But less than two percent of workers in South Bend have tech jobs.

“The city has increasingly become an appendage of Notre Dame, a wealthy Catholic private university,” wrote Benjamin Studebaker, a descendent of the family that owned South Bend’s former economic engine. “The people who once upon a time might have worked good union jobs at Studebaker now work increasingly in the ‘food and serving’ sector, whipping up fancy coffees and craft booze for the rich kids.”

Studebaker observed that in “food and serving,” one of South Bend’s five largest employment sectors, the median worker is paid $13,400 per year. In the large, specialized “healthcare and social assistance” industry, it’s only “marginally better,” Studebaker said, “$25,612.”

The revitalization of South Bend owes perhaps as much to luck as it does to initiatives like 1,000 Homes and Smart Streets. Buttigieg became mayor at a moment of economic revitalization and oversaw the city during a period of growth—the decline in South Bend’s unemployment rate, though impressive, probably owes more to macroeconomic trends than to the leadership of its young mayor. Similarly, the transformation of South Bend’s economy from manufacturing to the service sector began decades ago.

South Bend residents are more likely to point to Buttigieg’s ineffable qualities as mayor, his ability to listen, and the shift in outlook that they believe has taken hold since he entered office.

“I think the city was probably ready to start bouncing back,” Colwell told me. “But I think that it bounced back farther because of the change in attitude when Pete came in. People had been stymied in their economic development efforts—Pete [targeted those people] and said ‘How can we help you? Sure we can do that.’”

Pierce, the political science professor, highlighted Buttigieg’s receptivity to feedback. “Part of his moderate approach to politics is an openness—and this sounds odd—to learn. There are plenty of folks in politics who simply keep going the same way and doing the same thing over and over and over and he’s really not like that.”

“He’s really ready to listen and ready to learn and change course when it’s necessary,” said Pierce.

It’s not clear if any of this is transferable, if the skills used to transform America’s 299th largest city are applicable to managing a country of 320 million, if skills honed updating traffic patterns and sewer systems can be applied to intractable problems like income inequality and health care access and affordability. For all of Buttigieg’s experience managing large teams, the Senate is likely a better school for understanding the issues that move national politics. But Buttigieg’s career took hold by focusing on smaller issues rather than big ones, and the people of South Bend say it worked.