SOUTH BEND, Indiana — The people of South Bend never expected to be in the middle of a presidential race.
But Mayor Pete Buttigieg has hurled them all together now into the spotlight. Their challenges — poverty, a post-industrial economy, a deep mistrust of police — and Buttigieg’s fresh but complicated record at such a local level feed a persistent narrative about his relationship with people of color. So does racial division. More than a quarter of South Bend’s 101,000 residents are black. Another 14% are Latino. And some of the city’s most vocal activists have gone national with their attacks on the young, white, Harvard-educated mayor, who, as you may have heard, is polling at zero among black voters in South Carolina.
That story — a circular narrative built primarily around poll numbers — can be deeply misleading. A few things were clear to me after spending several days in South Bend this month and hearing from more than 15 local activists, pastors, politicians, and others — most of them people of color and many supportive of Buttigieg’s presidential bid. One: The anger directed toward Buttigieg over his policies and the slow pace at which results are seen is real and visceral, if not uncommon for a city of South Bend’s size. And two: Any notion that he has ignored these issues or navigated them without advice from the city’s black community is incorrect.
Buttigieg’s allies in South Bend’s black community, quiet for months as he defended himself with data that never told the full story, are finally hitting back — in some cases almost literally.
Last week, when a Black Lives Matter protester disrupted a public meeting designed to show off Buttigieg’s relationships with some of South Bend’s most respected black leaders, a woman in the audience reached for a cane and raised it over her head with two hands, as if prepared to strike the man before he ran off with the microphone.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had a person out of South Bend who’s running for president,” Karen White, the city council member who led the meeting, told me a few minutes before it began. “So that brings a lot of tension. Both good and bad.”
The ruckus went viral on Politics Twitter and accomplished what Buttigieg supporters there that night feared might happen: Theatrics overshadowed their thoughtful, nuanced testimonials.
“Whether he’s black, white, blue, or green, my relationship with him since I’ve been on council, and what he has done with the council and in my district has been tremendous,” Sharon McBride, another councilor friendly with Buttigieg, said at the microphone moments before the protester stole it. “And I think you can ask a lot of residents in the 3rd District, and they will tell you the same.”
Councilor Sharon McBride after a press conference held at the Charles Martin Youth Center in South Bend, Dec. 4.Evan Cobb for BuzzFeed News
Councilor Karen White speaks during a press conference at Charles Martin Youth Center in South Bend, Dec. 4.Evan Cobb for BuzzFeed News
The event itself was a bit confusing. Buttigieg’s campaign had promoted it as a “special announcement” from black leaders, but White and others made clear they were not there to officially endorse the mayor. Even McBride, who had just returned from a trip to vouch for Buttigieg in South Carolina, the early primary state where a majority of Democratic voters are black, demurred. When I asked her if her surrogate work signaled an endorsement, she gestured for me to turn off my audio recorder, refused to answer on the record, but then acknowledged she plans to go on the road with Buttigieg again.
All of this caution illustrates how sensitive Buttigieg’s candidacy is as a local political issue. The black leaders inclined to back him — official endorsements from at least some of those who participated in the meeting are expected soon — want to control their message.
Their meeting followed an announcement from Oliver Davis, a black councilor who last month endorsed Joe Biden for president, strongly rebuking Buttigieg as the wrong choice for black people.
“Did I know it was going to cause some issues? Of course, I did,” Davis told me over lunch last week at a diner. “But at the same time, I think people need to hear the story.”
The pushback from the Buttigieg team began to intensify after Davis’s Biden endorsement. After last week’s meeting, the campaign began posting videos from some of the participants and other supporters of color. And others began opening up about their frustrations that people like Davis and the Black Lives Matter activists were getting all the attention.
“I guarantee you, half of the people that will complain about Pete who you hear on national TV — a lot of them probably aren’t registered voters,” Kareemah Fowler, the former city clerk who won that elected office with Buttigieg’s backing, told me. “They don’t get involved in the process to try and make it better. But the minute you make a wrong turn, they’re gonna come out and organize against you. That’s the culture here.”
Fowler talked of regular meetings Buttigieg held with black leaders while she served as clerk. (It’s not clear if or how often such meetings happen now that Buttigieg spends much of his time campaigning across the country.) And when he drafted his proposal to fight systemic racism, named after the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and presented as the policy centerpiece of his White House run, he sought input from Fowler and others. Those conversations, Fowler said, included a diverse group ranging from union leaders to “people who could barely read” and people who had served time in prison.
“He’s in the perfect position to write a Douglass Plan,” Fowler said. “But I think people really overlook it because he’s just a young, white mayor. And they’re like, What do we know? He’s a Rhodes scholar. He’s not going to resonate with us because he’s lived a different life from us. But he actually has been the person on the ground for eight years listening to the concerns.”
The concerns linger, though. Buttigieg’s program to demolish vacant homes concentrated largely in black and Latino communities seeded distrust. His firing of a black police chief — in a complicated case involving a potentially illegal wiretap and unreleased audio recordings that are believed to include police officers using racist language — infuriated many. (The protester who disrupted last week’s meeting started by demanding the release of the tapes.) And over the summer, Buttigieg handling of police issues in the city became a national story after a white city police officer shot and killed Eric Logan, a 54-year-old black man.
Though Buttigieg points to his landslide reelection in 2015 as proof he made strides with voters of color, turnout was less than 15%, and one analysis shows his numbers dropped in some black precincts. In a city of more than 100,000, his critics like to note, Buttigieg won his second term with only 8,500 votes.
More recently, comments Buttigieg made years ago came back to hurt him.
“You’re motivated because you believe that at the end of your educational process, there is a reward — there’s a stable life, there’s a job,” he said when talking about educational disparities during a 2011 forum, a clip of which went viral last month. “And there are a lot of kids, especially [in] the lower-income minority neighborhoods, who literally just haven’t seen it work. There isn’t someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education.”
“I know he’s been going all over the country, particularly South Carolina, to gain some insight, which I think is good,” Oletha Jones, a South Bend school board member, told me. “And I know that he has done that here in South Bend. But there’s another group of stakeholders that he needs to focus on, and that would be the activists that have been bringing about awareness on structural racism and how it relates to education.”
Takesha McClane, president of the board that oversees the city’s contracting program for minority and women-owned businesses, attributed Buttigieg’s 2011 remarks to his inexperience. “I think Mayor Pete at the time was very young and he probably went off the perception of data,” said McClane, who otherwise has a positive view of Buttigieg’s mayoral tenure but is not ready to support a presidential candidate. “Most African Americans, we don’t feel that way. The fact that he was willing to admit that he was wrong, it doesn’t excuse everything, but everyone’s entitled to make mistakes.”
Davis, the councilmember who endorsed Biden, is a social worker for the school district and took particular issue with Buttigieg’s characterization of children of color lacking positive role models.
“One of the reasons I dress up all the time,” Davis told me as he pointed to his trademark bowtie, “is so I can be that role model — because they may not see an African American man dressed up all the time in their home.”
When we met for lunch, Davis insisted on showing me a 20-page pamphlet he circulated during his unsuccessful run for mayor this year. (Buttigieg, who did not seek a third term, had backed the eventual winner, who eliminated Davis and others in the Democratic primary.) “You will find a lot of pictures of me and Mayor Pete,” he said, thumbing through the pages.
Indeed, there were more than a dozen. Buttigieg and Davis watching a pair of oversized scissors do their work at a ribbon-cutting. Buttigieg and Davis marching down streets with other black leaders. Buttigieg and Davis joining hands at the Civil Rights Heritage Center.
Davis’s point was that he should not be confused for some anti-Pete gadfly and that the successes of South Bend are shared — between the mayor and the council. But Davis is less charitable about sharing the blame for the problems. He also remains upset about how the former police chief was dismissed and believes Buttigieg was slow to embrace racial diversity when hiring for high-level city positions. At the same time, Davis’s photos with Buttigieg can undercut a central point he and others make: that the mayor hasn’t spent enough time listening to black people.
The goalposts often shift when discussing Buttigieg with his critics. They’ll say he has a bad relationship with the black community. And when confronted with the names of influential black leaders who have his ear, they’ll dismiss those leaders as access-seekers and establishment fixtures. “It’s a small town, so everyone’s trying to get their piece of the pie,” Jorden Giger, a local Black Lives Matter activist who has emerged as one of Buttigieg’s most prominent critics in South Bend, told me.
Others question why Buttigieg never had a Douglass Plan for South Bend. But when told how some of the policy prescriptions — a higher minimum wage, more public contracts for minority-owned businesses — reflect initiatives championed by the mayor at home, they’ll minimize his role or say progress has been too slow. “At the end of the day,” Giger said, “he served two terms as mayor, and you can’t say that every time he was presented with a problem he listened.”
These types of complaints most annoyed the Buttigieg admirers I talked with in South Bend.
“That shit makes no sense to me,” said Muhammad Shabazz, a neighborhood activist who serves as the Democratic representative to the county’s voter registration board. “I had access to Pete not because I searched it out, but because he opened the door.”
Shabazz recalled a day early in Buttigieg’s first term. “We were doing a uniform giveaway for the schools. We had a band out there playing. Food trucks on our block. A little blue car pulled up — a raggedy blue car. A white man jumped out. I said, ‘That’s the new mayor!’ He walks down, ‘Can I get you guys anything?’ It’s summertime. He comes back with a ton of ice.”
The encounter inspired Shabazz to organize a local effort that involved setting up lemonade stands in neighborhoods affected by gun violence.
“What really got me was when Pete came back home after Eric Logan got shot,” Shabazz told me. “He did these town halls and he had these ‘activists’ — put that in quotes — yelling at him. You didn’t do shit. All you did was protest. You know what pisses me off? Educated people taking a backseat to louder people.”
Other Buttigieg allies believe the mayor is a victim of high expectations. He came into office promising change in what Newsweek months before his election had deemed a “dying city.” Changes made in response to the racial wealth divide and contracting disparity studies Buttigieg ordered may not be realized for years, long after he is gone.
“It frustrates me because most of the time people don’t understand the heavy lifting that’s going on behind the scenes,” Christina Brooks, whom Buttigieg hired in 2016 as the city’s first director of diversity and inclusion, told me. “It’s kind of like everybody wants the results now and does not understand the years of intensive labor that it took to create an unjust system. To try to unravel systems and institutions in an elected term is next to impossible.”
Brooks, who left the city last week to take a similar job in Fort Worth, Texas, oversaw the disparity study. The final report, released this year, found the city awarded 12% of its contracts worth more than $50,000 to businesses owned by minorities or women between 2015 and 2017 — and that such businesses represent 15% of the firms available to do business with the city. The study led to a new Buttigieg-backed ordinance to set 15% as the minimum goal for contracting with minorities and women.
“The black community here in South Bend is not monolithic,” Brooks said. “For every one person you can talk to who’s willing to go on camera because there might be some benefit for them, there are probably 12 to 15 who don’t want to be on camera but really support Mayor Pete and like what he’s doing.”
Getting those faces in front of a camera was the purpose of last week’s meeting, held at the Charles Martin Youth Center on the city’s west side. It was clear before it started that it would be a spectacle.
Supporters and protesters arrived early, with Tyree Bonds, the brother of Eric Logan, among the latter group. “You say you’re backing somebody who ain’t doing nothing in your own community?” he wondered aloud to me as he walked inside. “Come on, now. Stop it.”
Inside, the local anti-Buttigieg arguments were familiar and plastered on poster board — “Pete Kills Houseless People” — but with a tinge of national politics as some protesters wore Bernie Sanders gear. (Afterward, Buttigieg campaign representatives accused the mic-stealing protester of being a Sanders loyalist; Sanders’ campaign manager later denounced the disruption.)
“Their voices are outdated,” Yemoja Redding, a Black Lives Matter activist, said of the Buttigieg supporters who spoke. “A Douglass Plan that has not been enforced, only just recited? We are tired of words. We want action.”
A community organizer, local business owner, and three pastors — including Michael Patton, the head of the local NAACP — joined the council members, McBride and White, among those who spoke for Buttigieg.
“Mayor Pete comes from a Midwestern community that’s small,” Patton, who stressed that his support for Buttigieg is independent of his role with the NAACP, told me. “His level of politics has not been at the level of a Joe Biden or a Bernie Sanders. So here’s a young man who wants to run for president who now has to introduce himself to different cultures across the country. I think he’s done a great job at that. I think he’s got more to do.” ●