Why South Bend residents are warning America about Pete Buttigieg
By Reuven Fenton and Bruce Golding
New York Post
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When residents of this city’s impoverished West Side reflect on Pete Buttigieg’s two terms as mayor, a few things come to mind:
A spike in violent crime, development that largely ignored the African American community and how their only well-lit street is the one that leads to Notre Dame University.
So how, they wonder, can Buttigieg possibly be trusted to run the country?
“If he’s the next president, I fear for our country. He couldn’t run our city. How can he run the United States?,” said Michelle Burger, 42, a stay-at-home mom who lives in South Bend’s impoverished and predominantly black West Side.
“Look at all the crime — he didn’t do anything about it. Look at our quality of life. If he becomes president, the United States will become one big South Bend — a giant sinkhole. We’ll be in a new depression.”
Another West Side resident, Cornish Miller, 62, said of Buttigieg, “Rating him 1 to 10, I’d give him a 2.”
“Buttigieg talked about all the improvements he made, but he hardly made a dent,” said Miller, who works for a military supply company.
“The West Side is the most neglected part of town. The street I live on is the only street around here that has lights. That’s because we’re a gateway to Notre Dame.”
Buttigieg’s young age — 38 — along with his Rust Belt childhood, elite education and moderate liberalism have drawn comparisons with French President Emmanuel Macron, who was elected in 2017 at age 39.
On the stump, Buttigieg comes off as cool, calm and cerebral, with a deeper-than-expected voice, given his boyish appearance. He typically gives speeches wearing a white shirt and tie, with his sleeves rolled up.
But some in South Bend describe Buttigieg’s mayoralty as a nightmare during which FBI data show that violent crimes surged from 622 in 2012, his first year, to 1,088 in 2018, the latest for which statistics are available.
“We had a record number of homicides during his time as mayor, and it didn’t seem like he was feeling the people’s psychological, emotional and spiritual needs,” said the Rev. Sylvester Williams Jr. of the Interfaith Christian Union.
“It seemed like he was focused on creating a progressive city, that he was above tending to those basic needs.”
One of Buttigieg’s fiercest critics, Councilman Henry Davis Jr., said that Buttigieg was “inept” as mayor and “always had one foot out the door.”
He cited Buttigieg’s six-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer, as well as his failed, 2017 attempt to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“And then he came back and takes off again and wants to be president of the United States,” said Davis, who unsuccessfully challenged Buttigieg in South Bend’s 2015 Democratic mayoral primary.
“So he really has never been here and committed to the growth and the functionally of this community. It’s always been a gateway to something that he believed was larger.”
Buttigieg was born in South Bend and grew up in the Northshore Triangle neighborhood near Notre Dame University, where his late father, Joseph Buttigieg, and mother, Anne Montgomery, both taught English.
An only child, he graduated in 2004 from Harvard University, where he majored in history and literature, then won a Rhodes Scholarship to study philosophy, politics and economics at England’s Oxford University.
He was hired as an associate at the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm in 2007 and worked out of its Chicago office for clients that included Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Best Buy, the US Department of Defense and the US Postal Service.
Buttigieg took a leave of absence in the late summer and fall of 2008 to work on the failed Indiana gubernatorial campaign of former Democratic US Rep. Jill Long Thompson, then returned to McKinsey and in 2009 was awarded a direct commission in the US Navy Reserve.
He quit McKinsey in 2010 to run for Indiana treasurer as a Democrat, losing that race by nearly 25 percentage points.
Two months later, he declared his candidacy for mayor of South Bend, which is about the same size as the Bronx but has just 7 percent of its population.
Most people in the South Bend area work in the manufacturing, healthcare, education, retail and hospitality industries, according to the US Census. The region’s biggest employers are the University of Notre Dame, Beacon Health System and South Bend Community School Corp., according to the 2015 South Bend Region Economic Development report.
Buttigieg beat four opponents to win Democratic primary with 55 percent of the vote and was elected in November with 74 percent of the vote. He was just 29 when he took office.
But while the overwhelmingly Democratic city has more than 71,000 registered voters, Buttigieg was swept into office with just 10,991 votes and 2015 re-election bid garnered even fewer — 8,515 — even while winning 80 percent of the ballots cast.
Buttigieg came out publicly as gay in an op-ed published by the South Bend Tribune on June 16, 2015, amid his reelection campaign, and he told Oprah Magazine last year that the decision followed his return from Afghanistan, when he became “suddenly urgently aware that you only get one life.”
The following September, he began dating Chasten Glezman, a junior high school teacher in neighboring Mishawaka, after they met on the Hinge dating app, and they got married at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. James in South Bend on June 16, 2018.
They live with two dogs, Truman and Buddy, in a four-bedroom, 1903 neoclassical home in the Northshore Triangle that Buttigieg bought for $125,000 in 2009, during the depths of the Great Recession, after the former owner lost it to foreclosure.
The three-story house — which has imposing columns, a front porch and balconies — is just a block away from where Buttigieg’s mom lives, meaning that he doesn’t have to hop into his Lordstown, Ohio-built Chevy Cruze to visit.
Buttigieg and his supporters say his major successes as mayor include the development of new hotels, restaurants and apartments that have boosted both employment and the tax base of Indiana’s fourth-largest city, while critics say he is taking credit for the success of others.
Buttigieg also improved the city’s parks and revamped traffic with a $21 million, pedestrian-friendly “Smart Streets” plan that reduced speed limits, made one-way streets two-way, created roundabout intersections, planted sidewalk trees and installed decorative brick sidewalk pavers in the downtown.
And during the city’s 150th birthday celebration in 2015, he flipped the switch to inaugurate the “River Lights” display, which illuminates the St. Joseph River, the Jefferson Boulevard Bridge and a waterfront, modern-art sculpture called “Keepers of the Fire” with changing colors every night.
Further plans call for a dramatic revitalization of South Bend’s downtown by turning its former Studebaker auto factory into a 1.3 million-square-foot “technology campus.”
“When you’re in downtown South Bend and you see all these young people moving in — they graduated from Notre Dame and they stay in South Bend because of Mayor Pete,” said Jody Freid, 72, a lifelong resident and community activist.
But Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer countered that while Buttigieg “certainly had a few economic development wins,” he actually had “little, if anything, to do with that.”
“I found it ironic that when he announced his presidential run, he did it in front of Studebaker Building 84, which had sat vacant since 1963,” Hupfer said.
“But it was $3.5 million from then-Gov. Mike Pence’s Regional Cities Initiative that made that project go.”
Hupfer said increased employment in the area covering South Bend — where the unemployment rate dropped from 9.3 percent in 2012 to 3.6 percent in 2018 — was largely a function of “statewide economic strength under Republican leadership.”
Hupfer also noted the results of South Bend’s official 2018 Community Survey, in which only 29 percent of respondents agreed that the city had a “strong, inclusive economy” and 51 percent were neutral or dissatisfied with the “feeling of safety” in their neighborhoods.
“If you don’t feel safe and secure, it’s hard to get people to move there, it’s hard to get people to live there, and it’s hard to get jobs to grow there,” he said.
“I know I would much rather have 10 fewer homicides than a light display.”
One of Buttigieg’s signature programs was an anti-blight effort dubbed “1,000 Homes in 1,000 Days,” which ultimately targeted 1,122 abandoned houses, repairing about 40 percent and razing the rest, according to the South Bend Tribune.
Dan Kelley, an engineer who lives on a West Side block that was part of the program, said it hadn’t really helped his neighborhood, unlike the gentrifying area “across the river near Notre Dame.”
“Mayor Pete talks a big game, but in streets like this, it’s hard to see those changes. The urbanness has sort of gone to seed and you have houses spaced every two or three properties,” he said.
Compounding the problem, Kelley said, are the recent closures of the local hardware store — forcing him to drive 30 minutes to a Lowe’s for supplies to fix up his house — and the only grocery store in the area.
“It’s pretty much a complete food desert, other than the Family Dollar and the gas station,” he said.
Buttigieg has long been at odds with much of South Bend’s African American community, which accounts for 26 percent of the population and has a median income about half that of the city’s white residents, according to a 2017 report by the “Prosperity Now” non-profit.
Shortly after taking office, Buttigieg fired the city’s first black police chief, Darryl Boykins, over allegations Boykins secretly recorded the phone calls of high-ranking white cops suspected of using racist language against him and others.
From 2012 to 2018, the number of black cops fell by almost half — from 29 to 15, compared to more than 200 whites — and in June, the city was rocked when a white police sergeant shot and killed 54-year-old Eric Logan, who was black, while responding to a report of someone breaking into cars.
Buttigieg canceled a campaign trip to California to return to South Bend and hold a news conference about the incident, during which Sgt. Ryan O’Neill, who has since resigned, claims Logan refused orders to drop an eight-inch hunting knife.
“Not one time did he [Buttigieg] try to bring some level of compassion or sympathy.”
– Rev. Sylvester Williams Jr.
A special prosecutor is investigating the case and could upend Buttigieg’s campaign again when the probe wraps up, possibly later this month.
The South Bend Board of Public Safety held eight community meetings to address the controversy, but Buttigieg only attended one, in September, a day after Black Lives Matter activists publicly complained about his response to the killing.
Williams, who hosts a local radio show called “Real Talk,” pointed to another June shooting outside a bar called Kelly’s Pub that left one man dead and 10 people injured, all of whom were black.
The incident sparked so much community outrage that it forced a lockdown at a local hospital when more than 100 “angry and upset citizens” showed up there, the sheriff said at the time.
“Not one time did he try to bring some level of compassion or sympathy,” Williams said of Buttigieg.
“He’s a Rhodes scholar. He’s a polished politician. He’s been to a lot of schools of prominence. But there’s one school he omitted — and that’s the school of grief.”
During the Dec. 7 Democratic debate in New Hampshire, Buttigieg largely sidestepped a question about black people being arrested for pot possession in South Bend at a rate four times higher than whites.
Councilman Davis later tweeted that the ex-mayor “looked like a deer in headlights last night when talking about systemic racism in the South Bend Police.”
“He tolerated it, he perpetuated it, and last night he lied to millions of Americans about it,” Davis added.
Buttigieg has also come under fire for the city’s homelessness problem, which has included encampments under the downtown Main Street viaduct and in the woods behind a sex shop, “Romantix,” on the city’s southern outskirts.
The founder of South Bend’s Michiana Five for the Homeless non-profit, John Shafer, estimated that the city had about 500 vagrants, ranging from some who are “temporarily couch surfing” to others “living in abandoned vehicles, abandoned buildings, alleys, tents.”
Shafer, who retired in 2019, said Buttigieg “always acted like he was concerned and interested” whenever they spoke, but instead fought the homeless “at almost every turn,” including by having sanitation workers and cops break up the encampment under the Main Street viaduct in 2017.
“I just feel he didn’t care. I also feel he couldn’t relate to the homeless. And it just wasn’t one of his priorities,” Shafer said.
“I think he did more harm than good, and any good he did was a result of him running for office and trying to cover up some of those mistakes and neglects from his past dealings with the homeless.”
“I just feel he didn’t care. I also feel he couldn’t relate to the homeless. And it just wasn’t one of his priorities.”
– John Shafer, founder of the non-profit Michiana Five for the Homeless
A vagrant who The Post interviewed as he panhandled near South Bend’s main emergency shelter, the Center for the Homeless, said that if Buttigieg gets elected president, “you can bet you’ll see a lot more people like me around the country.”
“The homeless problem in South Bend represents the kind of mayor Pete was, and the kind of president he’ll be if he beats Trump — ineffective at providing basic services for the people who need them the most,” said Douglas Stebbins, 44.
“It’s not because he’s a bad guy; he means well. But he’s just too inexperienced to run an entire country, let alone a small city.”
In a prepared statement, Buttigieg’s campaign called him “an advocate for black communities” and said he “worked to address inequities” in his hometown.
“As Mayor of South Bend, Pete has routinely been one of the first leaders in South Bend history to shed light on opportunity gaps and address them in order to improve the experiences of Black residents in South Bend,” the campaign said.
“Pete made progress, working to promote equity and economic inclusion in city government and investing in neighborhoods that were ignored for far too long.
“Under his administration, the unemployment and poverty rates for Black residents fell faster in South Bend than for their counterparts across the state and the nation — and Pete earned praise for taking deliberate steps to diversify city government and make South Bend more inclusive.”