Eight years ago, Sharon McBride was on the verge of leaving her hometown of South Bend, Indiana, for greener pastures.
“I was considering leaving myself because of the blight of the city,” said McBride, who is now a councilwoman in her hometown. “I even had the interview offers in Dallas, Texas, and because the city was dying at the time, always wanted to stay here and raise a family, but at the same time, um, there was no other opportunities for growth.”
McBride grew up on South Bend’s west side, in a place that she calls the “hood,” where more of the city’s black and poor residents live. She went off to college and returned to Indiana to find her hometown dying.
Then, a 29-year-old Harvard graduate named Pete Buttigieg came back to town with dreams of being mayor and seeing South Bend transform its former industrial greatness into a new future.
“At the time he was young, ambitious and a lot of people, including myself, had reservations,” McBride said. “What is the millennial guy going to come in to a dying city and how can you transform it, as he set out to do?”
In the eight years since Buttigieg became mayor of this city, he has been credited with much of the revitalization in the downtown area. He also deployed to Afghanistan – a seventh-month period during which then-Deputy Mayor Mark Neal took over control of the city – and announced in an op-ed before his reelection bid that he was gay.
Now a presidential candidate, he’s closing out his second term with the small town accomplishments – 3.7% unemployment, nearly $200 million in private investment downtown, a re-invigorated stadium, tackling urban blight and homelessness – that line his resume in the absence of the kind of experience in governance touted by his Democratic rivals.
“Washington experience is not the only experience that matters,” Buttigieg said on the presidential debate stage in Atlanta last month, a challenge to candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar who together have decades of experience in Washington. “There’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?”
For Buttigieg, his experience comes from tackling the issues of South Bend, a city known more for what it was than for what it could be.
During a Tedx talk at the University of Notre Dame in 2015, Buttigieg pulled out a pocket watch known as the South Bend watch to demonstrate that the city had once been known for excellence in watch making – until the wrist watch put that company out of business. He argued that South Bend needed to take the richness of what it already had – fiber optic cables, train lines, the shells of manufacturing buildings – and make them the engines of their future.
“You ought to have locally sourced, home grown, organic innovation,” Buttigieg said during the talk. “You have to make it new, but you don’t have to make it up.”
“It’s going from the telephone to the iPhone, from the face book to the Facebook.com, from the pocket watch to the wrist watch. … That’s how we become the next South Bend.”
’We are no longer called a dying city’
Today, much of South Bend is the story of what buildings were – an old church, an old office building, an old factory – and what they are today: a new hotel chain, an apartment complex, a technology center.
Neal stands yards away from the old Studebaker plant that formed South Bend’s identity and employed thousands of workers at the height of this city’s industrial strength. Now, it is a luxury apartment complex overlooking a minor league baseball field that has become a crown jewel of South Bend’s redevelopment.
It is the first new apartment complex built in South Bend in over 50 years and it opened its doors this year.
“I think first and foremost Pete’s leadership has created a sense of enthusiasm really a sense of what can be rather than what can’t be,” said Neal, who served as deputy mayor and city controller in Buttigieg’s first term.
Building 84 of the Studebaker complex, which sits directly behind the apartment complex, has also had a new life – becoming home to new businesses and manufacturers. The broken windows that were once an eyesore have all be fixed.
“For many folks, that’s a sign of the beginning of a comeback of South Bend,” Neal said. “There’s still work to be done, but it’s exciting.”
Buttigieg often touts South Bend as a laboratory for the work that can be done on a larger scale at the federal level, and has tapped into programs he started locally to craft the plans that have become part of his presidential policy platform.
“We are no longer called a dying city, but a beta city – a national model for innovative practices,” Buttigieg told the South Bend Common Council at his final meeting as mayor earlier this month.
South Bend is a city that is roughly a quarter black, and like many American cities, has stark divisions among racial lines.
Early in his tenure, Buttigieg was confronted with the ways in which well-meaning policies can have unintended impacts. His “1000 homes in 1000 days” program was designed to rid neighborhoods of the blight of abandoned rundown homes. Buttigieg was criticized for unfairly penalizing less well off, down-on-their-luck residents, and black homeowners who inherited these homes by threatening demolition. In the end, 40% of the homes were repaired and 60% were demolished – a compromise after complaints were lodged.
“We understand traditional models of economic development. But if you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always gotten,” Regina Williams-Preston, a South Bend common councilwoman, told CNN earlier this year. “And what we’ve always gotten and what cities all over the country have always gotten is displacement of poor people and people of color – gentrification.”
In the face of criticism, Buttigieg often points to the city’s accolades: falling unemployment for African American residents under his tenure, initiatives aimed at bringing technology and wireless internet to the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and even his move in 2017 to name one of the city’s streets Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
But his detractors say the progress has not been evenly felt throughout the city.
Kareemah Fowler, former South Bend city clerk and now the chief financial officer for South Bend Public Schools, says that there is more work to be done.
“They have every right to feel that way,” Fowler said, who supports Buttigieg’s presidential run. “I believe that this was all part of a bigger strategy.”
“The conditions have been put in place for the next mayor to hit the ground running in every area of the city,” she added.
This summer, a roiling mix of economic frustration and anger over police abuses toward black residents came to the fore when a South Bend police officer killed black resident Eric Logan.
The incident set off protests in the city that forced Buttigieg to leave the campaign trail and return to the city to face the fury of his constituents. The episode has proven to be a pervasive challenge for Buttigieg, as voters in Iowa and New Hampshire challenge him over his handling of the case. Buttigieg has struggled to win the support of black voters nationally and in South Carolina, an early voting state where black voters are a powerful force in the Democratic primary.
“I’m sorry but like why should you be the president if it doesn’t like, if you didn’t do a good job in South Bend?” asked one young voter at a town hall event in Iowa this weekend.
Among members of Logan’s family, the feelings toward Buttigieg and the city are still raw.
Logan’s brother Tyree Bonds described his meeting with Buttigieg shortly after his brother was killed as disingenuous. Bonds says his friends and neighbors feel left behind by the so-called progress downtown.
“I mean they don’t – 100% don’t care about the community,” Bonds said. “They care about what’s going on downtown.”
With the national spotlight now on South Bend, these hometown tensions have exploded.
As searing as the experience of running for president is for the candidates themselves, it has also been challenging for Buttigieg’s supporters back home – particularly black residents – who are placed in a position to defend him against accusations of tone deafness and are met with questions about their own authenticity.
At a recent meeting hosted by Buttigieg’s black supporters in the city, a group of Black Lives Matter protesters, some Bernie Sanders supporters and Bonds showed up to protest. It ended in chaos as one protester took the microphone and yelled: “Who chose these people as the black leaders?! Who organized this?!”
He was talking about Sharon McBride, who coached basketball in a city school for 20 years – and spent 20 years at a community correctional facility that serves as an alternative to traditional incarceration.
“A lot of people don’t even know that,” McBride said. “They just think that I’m in this position that I’m getting paid astronomical amount. I don’t fit the mold of the typical black person that came up through South Bend.”
“So what do I know? But I was born and raised in the hood, I love my city and I don’t have any regrets for where I came from and to who I am today,” she added.
Those who know Buttigieg, however, say the experience this summer in dealing with Logan’s death changed the mayor as well.
“I think that was absolutely a learning experience for Pete. A learning experience, I think that he welcomed and maybe needed if he’s going to be the president of the United States,” Fowler said.
Neal, who has known Buttigieg since his first run for mayor, said that he has seen Buttigieg learn to demonstrate his empathy after facing the public anger around Logan’s killing.
“He is an introvert that doesn’t always come across, but I think he’s someone who does care deeply about each and every resident and has really worked hard for them,” Neal said. “I think it’s been interesting to see his maturation as a mayor or as a public official that I think he’s become perhaps more publicly empathetic.”