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“The People’s Mayor”: Can South Bend Produce a President?

As students return to school and autumn sets in, South Bend, Indiana, gears up for football season. It is easy to tell when game day has arrived in this town of just over 100,000 people, home to the University of Notre Dame and their Fighting Irish. Bottlenecks block up traffic in the northeastern portion of the city, where the university is located. The cars are filled with cheap beer, South Bend locals, Notre Dame students, and die-hard fans from across the country.

“It’s really hard to find a parking space. Some people will rent out their own driveways as a way to offer more parking,” said 19-year-old Emma Lyandres, who grew up in South Bend and whose father teaches Russian history at Notre Dame.

Former mayor of South Bend Stephen Luecke knows the drill on game day: “The best time to do your grocery shopping is before or during a football game, because nobody else is around.”

In many ways, South Bend is like any other college town. But there is far more to the city than tailgates and the Fighting Irish. After the loss of manufacturing jobs in the early 1960s, South Bend experienced an economic decline characteristic of cities across the Rust Belt. Now, the city is finally reinventing itself, decades after the automotive industry abandoned it to ruin.

In October 2018, after nearly six years in office, Pete Buttigieg, the current mayor of South Bend, said that he would not be seeking re-election. Instead, in January 2019, he announced that he would be running for president. Buttigieg claims that South Bend’s revival under his leadership is evidence that he can bring about change on the national scale.

Buttigieg, a Harvard graduate, Rhodes scholar, and Afghanistan War veteran, is a Democrat and the first openly gay municipal executive in Indiana. His presidential campaign has inspired a media firestorm, offering South Bend and its story a national audience. Still, the path to the presidency has many hurdles, and doubts remain about how much change Buttigieg can take credit for.

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At the heart of Indiana’s predominantly white St. Joseph County, South Bend is a blend of university students and professors; families who, a few generations ago, worked in the now-shuttered Studebaker factory; young professionals; and large black and Hispanic communities.

Because of its size, South Bend’s community enjoys an intimacy unusual in larger cities. It would not be abnormal to run into “Mayor Pete,” explained Lyandres, whose parents know Buttigieg’s parents personally.

“I think one of the things that was really special about growing up in South Bend was knowing everyone in my neighborhood,” she said. “Living in a place where there’s not many things to do all the time, it forces you to make friends with people. You go over to people’s houses and sit there and talk and hear their stories. This made my connections with people much more personal.”

Downtown South Bend has no chain restaurants.“Everything is kind of kitschy and local,” Sam Centellas, the executive director of the Latino community center La Casa de Amistad, said. And because of the university, he noted, the city is much livelier than other Midwestern cities of its size.   

On weekends, South Bend boasts a farmer’s market along the St. Joseph River. Local small business owners come to sell everything from popcorn and fresh vegetables to artwork. “There’s everything you can imagine and more,” said Courtney Becker, the editor-in-chief of the Notre Dame newspaper The Observer. “When I stay here for Thanksgiving, that’s where I go to get my ingredients.”

The city has its own nightlife—bars frequented by locals and college students alike—as well as art galleries and a local theater.

Despite South Bend’s flourishing farmer’s market and growing downtown area, remnants of the city’s abandoned industries still loom large. For decades, the Studebaker automotive manufacturing plant stood at the center of the city’s existence. Signs of that legacy endure, from the palatial Tippecanoe Place that was once a home to the company’s founder, Clement Studebaker, to the many local businesses and firms that emerged as a result of the industry. NCP Coatings used to provide custom paint jobs for Studebaker vehicles, and is still in the paints business today. For years, old and vacated buildings that once housed the massive Studebaker operation lined city streets. Only in the last decade has the city started tearing down or repurposing them.

When the Studebaker factory closed in December 1963, the city underwent an “identity crisis,” South Bend City Council President Tim Scott said. Ever since then, the city has been trying to recuperate the 7,000 jobs it lost, which constituted eight percent of the county’s total employment.

The 2008 recession did not help. South Bend experienced some of its gravest economic woes in its wake. Immediately in the wake of the economic downturn, the state of Indiana imposed heavy property tax caps to force municipalities to spend more effectively by limiting their funds. The government of South Bend needed to cut its budget of 120 million dollars by one-sixth.

“There weren’t companies looking to expand and invest in that time,” said Luecke, who served as the city’s mayor from 1997 to 2011. Eventually, the city had to institute a local income tax to make ends meet.  

In 2011, many of the Studebaker manufacturing plants had yet to be torn down. That same year, Newsweek placed South Bend on its list of “America’s Dying Cities.” Soon, however, things began to turn around—which many residents attributed to Buttigieg’s policies and efforts aimed at generating excitement among businesses and investors.

“Buttigieg has been going out trying to recruit youthful energy to promote and capture businesses here in South Bend,” Scott said.

With an influx of young people interested in starting businesses, Scott explained, as well as Notre Dame and Indiana University South Bend forming local partnerships and incubators, the city has been able to attract new startups and reshape its economy.

One of Mayor Buttigieg’s largest initiatives is called Smart Streets, which he first introduced at a budget hearing in 2013. The ongoing project is aimed at reinvigorating the city through developing two-way traffic flow and enhancing overall street quality, with new curbs, sidewalks, and street lights.

Positioned on key railroads and highways, South Bend attracts entrepreneurs. Heavy investment in technology in the last decade has helped fuel the city’s economic comeback. “We are now one of the largest centers for data technology in Indiana,” Scott said.

“There has certainly been large development in downtown South Bend, as well as greater partnerships with Notre Dame,” said Alan Achkar, executive editor of the South Bend Tribune, the city’s largest newspaper. “We have seen several older dilapidated buildings in the downtown area being transformed into lofts and housing.”

Now, the former Studebaker manufacturing facility, Building No. 84, which offers 800,000 square feet of open space, is being converted into a technology hub. The old rail depot, which fell to disuse in the early 1970s, now houses tech companies as the Union Station Technology Center.

“Notre Dame just partnered with General Electric to do research on jet engines,” Scott said, “all on old Studebaker grounds.”

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“The people’s mayor” is what Centellas called Buttigieg in an interview with The Politic. “Mayor Pete” speaks fluent Spanish, and he will often come into Centellas’ largely Latino neighborhood to have lunch with locals.

In a quarterly meeting a few years ago with Latino leaders in the city, members of a local Mexican church came to discuss ways that parishioners could gain easier access to photo identification. In the middle of the meeting, after sharing a few updates, Centellas  remembered that Buttigieg stopped and said, “Should we do this in Spanish?”

“He goes into his speech talking about issues like combined sewer overflow, all in Spanish,” Centellas recalled.

It is no coincidence that South Benders speak highly of Buttigieg: the mayor was last elected in 2015 with over 80 percent of the city’s vote. Now, he seeks to turn his local persona into a national one. Citing South Bend’s recent economic success, Buttigieg buoyantly claims to represent a new future for the Americans. The mayor has branded himself as a voice of reason in an otherwise toxic political atmosphere.

In an interview with New York Magazine, Buttigieg said that the country needs a “reckoning with nostalgia” to honor the past “but not get sucked into it, not get resentful about it, either.” South Bend, he explains, has been through that reckoning already, under his leadership. Like South Bend, Buttigieg says, the nation needs to let go of the past and embrace economic and political change.

In the wake of President Trump’s electoral success in the Midwest, Buttigieg believes he can sway voters. “Pete is really bringing that Rust Belt fly-over area of America to the table. We’re kind of forgotten about,” Scott said.

Trump’s 2016 run also undermined the traditional path to the presidency, noted Achkar, the editor of the South Bend Tribune, paving the way for outsiders like Buttigieg. No longer does one have to be a senator or governor before throwing their hat in the ring, he said.  

Still, Buttigieg’s prospects of victory are slim, at best. “There are a million hurdles facing him in this race,” Achkar said. Up against heavy-hitters like Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, Buttigieg has to worry about name recognition, fundraising, and the daunting possibility that his message simply won’t resonate with voters.

Questions remain about the degree to which Buttigieg can boast of his success in South Bend. The city still grapples with deep ongoing problems. According to a September 2017 study conducted by Prosperity Now, economic insecurity in South Bend is especially pronounced in communities of color. Hispanic households in the city have an income poverty rate of 32.9 percent, ten points higher than the national Hispanic income poverty rate. The median household income of African Americans in South Bend, who make up about a quarter of the city’s population, is 14,000 dollars lower than the national average; 40.2 percent of African Americans in South Bend fall below the poverty line, which is nearly double the national poverty rate for African American households.

As Centellas puts it: South Bend is a “screaming example” of white flight.

Recent population trends in the city show that since the 1990s, white residents have been leaving as the city’s black and Hispanic populations have been growing. The problem has continued during Buttigieg’s tenure: the white population of the city fell from around 63,000 in 2010 to about 54,486 in 2017.

“We now have little suburb cities like Granger, Mishawaka, and Osceola that are extremely high percentage white, and that are much better off socio-economically,” Centellas said.

Nevertheless, Centellas remains hopeful. The city is currently conducting research to gain a better understanding of its problems and possible solutions. “We’re trying to see what we can do better. We’re trying to improve,” he said.

Buttgieg often cites the fact that he tore down a thousand dilapidated and unoccupied properties in the city. And yet, those thousand lots now lie vacant. “Many would say that’s not rejuvenation yet,” Achkar said.

The city’s transformation “can’t be boiled down to a campaign slogan,” he added.

Beyond concerns about Buttigieg’s local success, one of the central questions surrounding Buttigieg’s run is the degree to which South Bend actually represents Indiana, the Midwest, and the country as a whole. Would a candidate like Buttigieg succeed in attracting Rust Belt voters?

When it come to the city’s voting patterns, Achkar said, “South Bend is not reflective of Indiana at all.” While Hillary Clinton garnered only 47 percent of the vote in broader St. Joseph’s County, defeating Trump by only 200 votes, South Bend proper has consistently elected Democratic mayors and city councils.

When it comes to voting, South Bend is representative of many metropolitan areas in the country: a Democratic urban pocket surrounded by rural populations that vote Republican. Due to its strong manufacturing past, South Bend has always had a base of voters who are part of unions, most of whom have historically voted Democrat. The presence of higher education institutions like Notre Dame contributes to a more Democrat-leaning population, as does the city’s ethnic diversity.

Because Buttigieg hails from a blue island within an increasingly red state, his appeal in his own region may be fairly limited. As an openly gay candidate who frequently speaks about issues like climate change and gun violence, Buttigieg may find it challenging to attract support from Midwestern blue-collar voters.

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In 2016, Buttigieg organized a campaign event in South Bend for Hillary Clinton. “You could just tell the enthusiasm wasn’t there,” he told The Washington Post in January 2019, explaining how the establishment candidate lost because the stakes seemed too low. What the party needs now, he said, is “a bigger scope of ambition for people.”  

“Change is something we need to face with clear eyes. It’s scary, but it’s also exciting,” he told the Post.

Lyandres said she was always drawn to Buttigieg’s energy and drive. “A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a few of my friends. And I said, ‘He’s going to run for president.’”

As Buttigieg prepares for the national stage, Luecke is still thinking about South Bend’s future. Whether Buttigieg wins or loses his run for president, he will not be seeking another term in South Bend. As Buttgieg faces a future beyond town lines, Luecke wonders what’s ahead at home: “Now,” he said,“we’re looking at who will be the next mayor.”