SOUTH BEND, Ind. — As Mayor Pete Buttigieg contends with the fallout from the shooting of a black man by a white police officer in his city, a POLITICO analysis of data from his earlier mayoral elections shows he struggled to win the confidence of the city’s black voters following a series of controversies in his first term.
Detailed precinct results from South Bend’s 2011 and 2015 mayoral races show Buttigieg repeatedly lagging behind black primary challengers in many of western South Bend’s predominantly black neighborhoods. And while Buttigieg still managed to win those precincts in two general elections against white Republican opponents, his support in these areas fell after his first term.
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In the 2011 general election, Buttigieg had some of his highest margins of victory in these neighborhoods — a typical result for a Democrat facing a Republican opponent in South Bend. But by 2015, western South Bend gave him his weakest results after his support plunged by more than 20 points in some precincts.
Interviews with city council members, former political opponents and local residents suggest that Buttigieg’s management style — heavy on outside expertise and top-down implementation — may have alienated grassroots voices, a complaint that registered particularly strongly in South Bend’s black communities, where the desire to be heard and consulted has historic resonance.
“Because he’s the smartest guy in the room, he’s gonna tell you that what you believe is true is not factual, and that his study and his understanding of it is better than yours,” said Henry Davis Jr., a former city council member and Buttigieg’s primary opponent in 2015. Davis won just 22 percent of the vote against the incumbent Buttigieg citywide, but ran even with Buttigieg in South Bend’s predominantly black precincts.
Kareemah Fowler, South Bend’s first black city clerk who won her 2015 election with Buttigieg’s endorsement, told POLITICO that Buttigieg made good efforts to engage the community but inevitably made mistakes because of the pace of change he sought in contending with housing and other community issues.
“You come in young, new and ambitious, you may have all of these goals and plans and things that you want to do,” Fowler said, “and some things are maybe not thought out as much.”
Many of the neighborhoods that shifted against Buttigieg overlap with the footprint of his signature first term initiative, a program to demolish or repair abandoned housing leftover from the city’s long term decline. While many residents cheered the eradication of urban “blight,” some complained that the city’s failure to quickly redevelop properties left streets dotted with empty overgrown lots akin to a “snaggletooth” grin with missing teeth.
Others felt that the mayor’s reforms prioritized attracting college-educated professionals to South Bend at the expense of local input from black residents who lived in the corridor between the airport and downtown. And his decision to demote the city’s first black police chief — the handling of which Buttigieg calls his “first serious mistake as mayor” — further inflamed tensions between the city’s police force and its black communities.
City council members and local residents also cited Buttigieg’s sexual orientation — which he publicly revealed toward the end of his first term — as a potential barrier to his support among some parts of South Bend’s black communities.
“He’s not a regular fella, you know what I’m saying?” said Tydus Cunegin, a retired factory worker for AM General who has been as resident of South Bend for more than five decades. “He’s not a regular married man like the average person.”
Buttigieg’s identity as a married gay man could hurt his pitch to black voters nationwide in 2020. Among voters in the 2016 presidential primaries, 41 percent of black Democrats said they oppose the legalization of gay marriage — the most of any racial subgroup — compared to just 14 percent of white Democrats, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study at Harvard. The survey shows nearly identical numbers among Indiana Democrats.
Buttigieg’s struggles to nail down the support of South Bend’s black voters provide crucial context for his early difficulties winning black backers for his presidential race, an Achilles heel he’s tried to address with high-profile events like his sit-down at a Harlem restaurant with Rev. Al Sharpton. Over lunch, he tried to make the case that as a gay man, he understood the pain of those who confront discrimination. But public polling suggests he still has a long way to go.
A nationwide CNN poll conducted soon after the first Democratic presidential debate in late June found Buttigieg with 0 percent support among black Democrats.
“Because he’s running for president, nobody here wants to criticize Pete. They want him to be a hero,” said Councilwoman Regina Williams-Preston, who represents a district in western South Bend, “but every hero has a flaw they need to overcome.”
In his recent memoir,Shortest Way Home, Buttigieg recounts his 2011 mayoral primary and spends several pages describing how he chipped away at the support of the “two credible candidates” in the Democratic primary: Ryan Dvorak, who had earned the support of organized labor during his tenure as a state representative, and Mike Hamann, a well-liked county council member who was the local party chairman’s favored candidate. Buttigieg’s only black opponent, former Clinton administration staffer Barrett Berry, is mentioned just once as someone “running a distant fourth.”
While Buttigieg’s political instincts proved correct — he ultimately won the primary with 55 percent of the vote, with Hamann and Dvorak trailing in second and third place respectively — a more complicated picture lurked beneath the topline results. Despite Buttigieg’s broad popularity throughout the rest of the city, Berry outperformed him in several of western South Bend’s predominantly black precincts.
Still, these neighborhoods were reliably Democratic in the general election that fall. Buttigieg was particularly adept at courting the West Side by forging connections with widely respected black pastors, who discussed the city’s issues with him at one of his favorite coffee hangouts. When the results came in on election night, Buttigieg was swiftly declared the victor with 74 percent of the vote, buoyed by particularly strong support in western South Bend.
Buttigieg’s political honeymoon with his new constituents was soon overtaken by events. Buttigieg’s first major encounter with South Bend’s racial divides as mayor began just three months after he took office in 2012, when he chose to demote the first black leader of the city’s police force.
South Bend’s police chief, Darryl Boykins, was alleged to have improperly recorded phone calls by subordinates he feared were gunning for his job — a scandal that attracted the attention of federal investigators. After demoting Boykins and settling three lawsuits against the city brought by the officers involved, Buttigieg declined to release the tapes, citing legal restrictions under the Federal Wiretap Act. The decision continues to frustrate many of the city’s black residents, who speculate that the recordings captured officers making racist remarks.
“The Chief Boykins debacle was one of the first things that was a clear indicator that he wasn’t connected to this community, he wasn’t interested in hearing what the community was saying,” said Davis. “He was interested in what he thought, and he kept saying what he thought was the best for our community.”
Fowler, the city clerk elected with Buttigieg’s support, suggested that black voters didn’t appreciate thelegal constraints on the mayor.
“People didn’t understand what was going on,” she said. “They didn’t understand why this whole thing had to go to court, legal or not legal. They’re like, ‘You’re the mayor, you have the ability to do this.'”
While the police scandal dominated local headlines during his first year in office, Buttigieg was also laying the groundwork for his ambitious plans to revitalize South Bend. The mayor began convening task forces and commissioning reports on the city’s chronic problems with vacant and abandoned housing, a byproduct of 40 years of declining population.
City records show that the problem was particularly concentrated in predominantly black neighborhoods on the West Side, and many residents welcomed the effort to address decaying properties that were catching fire and attracting urban wildlife. But the mayor’s aggressive implementation soured some on his approach.
To create a sense of urgency, Buttigieg set an ambitious goal for his initiative: the city would tear down or repair 1,000 houses over the course of 1,000 days. But to achieve that goal, Buttigieg needed to quickly spur homeowners into action or otherwise get neglected properties into the city’s hands.
To that end, according to interviews with city officials, the city government began ramping up code enforcement, sending inspectors into neighborhoods to give homeowners notice and begin assessing fines. A new municipal website encouraged owners to donate their property to the city. While much of the initiative’s rhetoric focused on out-of-town investors and absentee landlords, some local homeowners were caught in the crossfire.
Regina Williams-Preston said she decided to run for her council office in 2015 after she and her husband were fined more than $70,000 by the city during the initiative.
According to Williams-Preston, the couple had purchased a half dozen properties in their neighborhood through tax sales, and planned to eventually rehabilitate and sell the homes. But after her husband, the family’s primary breadwinner, became ill and fell into a coma, the couple’s plans fell apart at the same time that code enforcement was becoming more active.
“It happened on a large scale and people didn’t know what hit them,” said Williams-Preston.
Fowler, whose office oversees code enforcement, said the decision to enforce regulations that had been largely ignored for years caught residents off guard.
“If you hardly ever got a ticket for things that are on the book that are illegal, and then someone comes in and gives you one ticket or two tickets, that feels like 15 tickets,” Fowler said.
Buttigieg’s next initiative — a plan to create a walkable downtown by reengineering traffic flow, adding bike lanes and turning intersections into roundabouts — was also met with a mixed reception among the city’s black communities.
“They called it Smart Streets, we kind of called it dumb streets,” said Gladys Muhammad, a community organizer in South Bend for more than 30 years. Muhammad suggested that residents eventually embraced the program after an initial period of adjustment.
“It was a big change, and people have to get used to the change,” she added.
West Side residents complained that Buttigieg was overly focused on downtown streets while they continued to deal with potholes in their own neighborhoods.
Davis raised these issues during the 2015 Democratic mayoral primary, but spent much of the campaign fending off headline-generating scandals, including a DUI arrest. He ultimately won 22 percent of the vote against the incumbent Buttigieg in the May 2015 Democratic primary, running close to or ahead of Buttigieg in predominantly black neighborhoods.
One month later,Buttigieg publicly came out as gay by authoring an article in the South Bend Tribune titled, “Why Coming Out Matters.” The mayor expressed his hope that coming out would increase acceptance for the gay community in South Bend.
“And for a conservative resident from a different generation, whose unease with social change is partly rooted in the impression that he doesn’t know anyone gay,” Buttigieg wrote, “perhaps a familiar face can be a reminder that we’re all in this together as a community.”
While some residents said that rumors about Buttigieg’s sexuality had swirled in South Bend for years, the public announcement put strain on his relationship with some traditional black religious congregations that had previously supported him but felt blindsided by the announcement. According to Davis, some local pastors declined to support Buttigieg in the subsequent general election.
That fall, Buttigieg trounced his Republican opponent with 80 percent of the vote. In his memoir, he writes that the overwhelming margin convinced him that “our socially conservative community had either moved forward in its acceptance of minority sexual orientations, or decided it didn’t care.”
But that recollection overlooked a shift in votes at the neighborhood level. Whereas in 2011 Buttigieg’s support was strongest in predominantly black precincts on the West Side, his support in those neighborhoods fell in the 2015 general election.
In precincts where more than half of residents are black, the mayor’s vote share fell by 8 points on average. One of the sharpest declines occurred in a neighborhood known colloquially as “The Lake,” where older black residents have resided for decades. According to the Indiana University South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center, it was the only neighborhood where black residents were allowed to buy land in the early 20thcentury.
Muhammad said Buttigieg’s decision to come out as gay could have cost him support in black precincts, but many community leaders respected his honesty.
“You have to have some courage to come out and say that, because he could have gotten a real big backlash from that,” said Muhammad, “but he decided to own up to it and he did.”
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Views differ as to whether the mayor has managed to fully reconnect with South Bend’s black communities in the years since. His administration touts ongoing efforts at minority outreach, including the creation of the city’s first Diversity and Inclusion Officer in 2016 and hiring the first African American city attorney.But some remain skeptical.
“It’s felt like he’s had a foot out the door this whole time. He’s never been fully invested with both feet in,” said Davis. “He’s never been covered in it. How can you depend on someone who’s leaving the city?”
Williams-Preston expressed forward-looking optimism about Buttigieg’s relationship with South Bend’s black communities. She recalled how Buttigieg arrived at community functions with a stiff demeanor and large entourage during his first term, which gave way to more relaxed and intimate interactions in his second term.
Muhammad told POLITICO that she believes the mayor is still broadly popular and has made efforts to learn from the experience of his first term.
“He makes adjustments when it’s necessary,” said Muhammad, who supports the mayor’s presidential aspirations, “and if he made a mistake or something, he can own up to it.”
Shortly before the first debate, Buttigieg returned to South Bend to address the shooting of a 54-year-old black man, Eric Logan,by a white police officer who claimed the victim threatened him with a knife but who had not turned on his body camera.At a swearing-in ceremony for six new officers, Buttigieg said public anger over the officer’s failure to turn on his body camera was justified. The mayor promised a change in policy that would require body camera use during all police interactions.
But members of the press honed in on another detail — all six officers being sworn in that day were white, according to the South Bend Tribune. At the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, moderator Rachel Maddow asked Buttigieg why, after his two terms as mayor, the police force was only 6 percent black in a city where 26 percent of residents are black.
“Because I couldn’t get it done,” responded Buttigieg, admitting that bias training and other past reforms had not been enough to prevent the shooting.
METHODOLOGY NOTE: Vote counts and precinct maps were obtained from the St. Joseph County Clerk’s office. In precincts whose boundaries changed between the 2011 and 2015 general elections, we adjusted vote counts and U.S. Census population estimates based on the area shared between the different maps. The locations of targeted vacant and abandoned houses were derived from a February 2013 report by the Vacant & Abandoned Properties Task Force.