Does everyone really love Mayor Pete? His home town has some answers

Pete Buttigieg announces his presidential candidacy for 2020 Sunday in South Bend, Indiana.
Pete Buttigieg announces his presidential candidacy for 2020 Sunday in South Bend, Indiana. Photograph: Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

Jack Colwell was a young reporter with a big story. Trade union sources told him that the Studebaker car plant, the beating heart of South Bend, Indiana, was closing down with a loss of nearly 7,000 jobs that would devastate the community. On 9 December 1963, above his byline, the front page headline on the South Bend Tribune newspaper read: “Auto output to end here.”

“We had an afternoon edition at that time and it was taken out to the factory gate,” said Colwell, who is still a political columnist at the paper. “Workers were coming out and they wouldn’t believe it. They thought it was fake news. ‘No, no, we haven’t heard it. Nobody’s told us. This is not true. Studebaker’s still going to be here forever.’ They just wouldn’t believe it and of course then the announcement came soon thereafter and they believed it.”

When Pete Buttigieg announced his run for US president last Sunday, he chose to do it in a cavernous former Studebaker factory in South Bend. The ghosts of assembly line workers were replaced by his cheering supporters. The symbolism was clear for a candidate who is said to have “the trauma of midwestern deindustrialisation in his bones” and who is trying to make the case that – after seven years as mayor – his revival of the city shows he is ready to be president.

Buttigieg’s rally in South Bend, Indiana.
Buttigieg’s rally in South Bend, Indiana. Photograph: Joshua Lott/AFP/Getty Images

Many in South Bend proudly agree. But there also those who complain that, like many other urban regeneration efforts across the midwest, the benefits have been distributed unevenly in Indiana’s fourth biggest city, where more than 40% of the population is African American or Hispanic.

Studebaker shuttered two weeks after the Kennedy assassination due to falling sales, outdated production facilities and fierce competition from Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.

There were fears that the city might not survive. Walter Winchell, a radio broadcaster, warned: “Grass will grow in the streets of South Bend.”

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“And it darned near happened,” Colwell mused. “The whole economy suffered because a lot of the Studebaker workers not only lost their jobs, they lost their pensions and there was a lot of poverty, suicides even. It was a very depressed place and that went on for decades.”

South Bend’s population sank from 130,000 in the 1960s to 100,000 today, a decline of 23%, as many young people, including Buttigieg himself, sought greener pastures. Newsweek magazine named it one of America’s dying cities. But after spells at Harvard, Oxford and McKinsey, Buttigieg came home. In 2012, aged just 29, he became mayor on a promise of revitalizing downtown and tackling urban decay.

By many measures, his watch – from which he took a seven-month leave to deploy to Afghanistan with the navy reserve in 2014 – has been a success. South Bend has seen its first significant population increase in half a century. Joblessness has been cut by more than half, from 9.6% when Buttigieg took office to 3.8% today. Some $850m of investments have poured in. While South Bend is about 55% Democratic, he won reelection with more than 80% of the vote.

Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten Buttigieg.
Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten Buttigieg. Photograph: John Gress/Reuters

Colwell, who has seen mayors come and go over half a century, said: “I don’t think you could say that he just single handedly turned the city around. There were other mayors before him who brought the city back some and, perhaps no matter who was mayor, maybe the time had come when there was going to be a rejuvenation. But certainly he was a prime catalyst in bringing it about.”

Under Buttigieg, old Studebaker buildings are being revived and converted into mixed use spaces, including for tech start-ups. One-way streets have been scrapped and altered to become more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Buttigieg introduced a public art installation called River Lights on the main waterway. He has tried to make government more systematic by gathering data on everything from rubbish collection to gunshots.

And his daring 1,000 houses in 1,000 days initiative demolished or repaired abandoned homes. “When he announced that, I thought he was crazy,” Colwell said….

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