At 9 Sunday evening (EDT), Mayor Pete goes nationwide. That’s when Pete Buttigieg is featured on a televised CNN town hall as a Democratic candidate for president.
The 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is attempting one of the most audacious political paths in history, which would be jumping from leading a city of 100,000 population, with a $360 million budget and a thousand employees, to the presidency with a $4 trillion budget and millions of workers.
Most politicians aiming for the White House have a statewide or urban political base. Buttigieg (pronounced boot-edge-edge) has skipped that step, though his unsuccessful 2010 run for Indiana treasurer is the source of an early chapter in his book, “Shortest Way Home.”
“The very first time I put my name on the ballot for office, fully one million people had voted for the other guy,” Buttigieg notes. “I had received a priceless, if humbling, course of education, a fitting conclusion to a decade of learning.”
Ten weeks after that defeat, fate would intervene. Four-term mayor Steve Luecke announced he would retire and Newsweek would name South Bend No. 8 in a story titled “America’s Dying Cities,” explaining: “What is particularly troubling for this small city is that the number of young people declined 2.5 percent during the previous decade, casting further doubt on whether this city will ever be able to recover.”
The reaction on Facebook was one of doom and gloom, except for one classmate, who said, “If you live here, quit complaining and do something to fix this town.”
Buttigieg, a former Rhodes scholar and Harvard graduate, realized an opportunity along with the risk of possibly losing two races in the span of a year.
“The city’s needs matched what I had to offer,” he writes. “The city was fearful of losing its educated youth, and I was a young person who had chosen to come home and could encourage others to do the same. Its politics were mired in the struggle between two factions of the Democratic Party, each with its own candidate in the race. I belonged to no faction and could arrive without strings attached.”
When he announced his candidacy for mayor at age 29, Buttigieg cited the Newsweek article, declaring, “This didn’t just feel like an opportunity; it felt like a calling. This is not an occasion for denial. It is a call to action.”
He won the five-way Democratic primary and the general election, commencing eight years of executive leadership. (During his re-election campaign in 2015, he came out as gay in a column in the South Bend Tribune, and went on to win a second term with 80 percent of the vote.)
How did he do as mayor?
Census numbers showed population increases after decades of contraction. He had once pondered blowing up South Bend’s empty 25-story Chase Tower, but there’s a new owner and $30 million in investment and another hotel going into the vacated College Football Hall of Fame, which moved to Atlanta in 2012. The Studebaker complex ruins are now occupied by high tech and aerospace firms.
Like any city, South Bend has plenty of urban problems. Asked how he took on a murder rate that in 2015 was 29th highest in the nation, Buttigieg explained, “Gun violence starts with a shockingly small group of people ... you can find connections with those people, almost all of them young, almost all of them men. With today’s social network technology, you can literally figure out who is friends with who, who respects who, who listens to who. We can kind of predict who those 200 people are in a 100,000 (person) city, who are most likely to shoot somebody.
“We literally bring them into a room ... we basically say, ‘We need you alive, safe and out of jail. Here’s what will happen if you let us guide you to social services. Here’s what will happen if you are associated with the next homicide in the city.’”
That approach brought South Bend’s 2018 homicide total to 12.
There were thousands of abandoned homes and confronting that finds the crux of Buttigieg’s leadership. “We had so many vacant houses in South Bend, nobody could tell me how many we had,” he said. “We started methodically analyzing data. There was a goal almost childlike in its simplicity: I went out there and said, ‘We’re going to (raze) a thousand houses in a thousand days.’ To be honest, I didn’t know completely how we were going to get it done. The moment I did that, I had a political sword dangling over my head.”
At Day 500, he was way behind and he knew it. On Day 1,000, “We were at 1,122.”
So Sunday night Mayor Pete brings that style to America on CNN. A Morning Consult Poll gives him a 1 percent chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
“We were trying to keep our expectations low just because I’m not famous compared to most of the others,” he told me at a recent book signing. “A lot of these early states don’t know me, but the events in these early states have exceeded my expectations in terms of attendance. As I watch the faces rise and fall and the groups I’m speaking to, I can tell a lot of my message, especially the generational message, seems to be resonating.”
Brian A. Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.