James Mueller (left) talks to South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (right)
James Mueller (left) and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg Malcolm Phelan

Pete Buttigieg's former chief of staff, James Mueller, is vying with a Republican challenger to be the next mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Updated: October 22, 2019

SOUTH BEND, IN—It was only 34 minutes into our conversation that Sean Haas paraphrased Field of Dreams. “If we have it, they will come,” he said.

Haas, a public school teacher and an Army veteran, is running for mayor in South Bend, Indiana. The “it” he’s talking about is threefold: better public safety, sturdier infrastructure, and a stronger trade-skills educational system. That’s what South Bend needs most, he says. Not flashy investments in downtown high rises, not more national media attention, and not a reckoning with “systemic racism,” which, in a recent debate, he said he doesn’t believe exists. And not the continued leadership of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who’s spent the larger part of his second term in local office running to be president of the United States.

Opinions like Haas’s stand out in South Bend, where many locals are happy to sing Mayor Pete’s praises, thanking him for transforming a once-depressed city into a pocket of Midwest optimism. Since its Studebaker plant shuttered in 1963, South Bend bled jobs, residents, and hope. Buttigieg’s rising star in national Democratic politics and his high-profile presidential candidacy have helped put this city of 100,000 back on the map, and he’s used its upwards trajectory to frame his own ascent: Many constituents credit the 37-year-old mayor’s data-driven investments in infrastructure, massive vacant-home-clearing project, and business-friendly attitude as helping South Bend grow its population for the first time in decades, more than halve its unemployment rate, and revive a moribund downtown.

Buttigieg’s White House run still has a long way to go, though he’s fared far better than the mayor of another, much-larger city. With a dozen Democrats preparing to face off in a debate in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday evening, Buttigieg is ranked fourth in some national polls, but he leads the field (along with Senator Elizabeth Warren) in the number of campaign offices he’s established in the early primary states. He also led fundraising in the second quarter, with $25 million in donations; last quarter, his numbers had slowed a bit. Almost sixty mayors and former mayors from large cities across the country have backed him. As a branding exercise and economic development tool for his home city, however, the campaign has so far been an unmitigated success. A grand “South Bend for Pete” mural greets local visitors; baristas say the coffee shops are often filled with campaign staff, many of whom are headquartered downtown.

But Buttigieg will not be mayor for much longer. Last year, he pledged he wouldn’t run for another term back home. This November 5—a year before the presidential election—South Bend voters will elect a new leader. Many expect them to chose a man molded in the image of the current one: Buttigieg’s former chief of staff and high-school classmate, James Mueller, who is running for the position as a Democrat.

South Bend is for Pete! (Sarah Holder/CityLab)

His opponent, Haas, is running as a Republican, and he has a challenging history to overcome: A relatively liberal enclave in a red state, South Bend hasn’t sent a GOP mayor to City Hall since 1967. The city hasn’t even had a “serious” Republican option since 1978, says longtime South Bend Tribune political columnist Jack Colwell.

But Haas isn’t the only one in South Bend who will be happy to see Mayor Pete go. Some of the fiercest critics of Buttigieg’s local record come from the city’s African American community: The much-lauded vacant-home-clearing project affected Latino and African American neighborhoods, and left empty lots gaping in the northwest and west sides of town. There’s been long-simmering distrust of the South Bend Police Department, triggered in part by Buttigieg’s decision to demote the first black police chief in 2015, and revived after a white officer shot a black man in the field this summer. Unemployment rates for African American and Hispanic residents remain almost twice as high as those for white residents; the income gap between white and black residents has widened during Buttigieg’s tenure.

And as Buttigieg spends more of his time on the campaign trail, his absence has been keenly felt back home. Haas, for one, has repeatedly called for his resignation, saying that crime has been able to flourish. “[T]his is something that I don’t want to say was inevitable, but there was going to be an issue that was going to challenge his ability to do both jobs at the same time,” Haas told WUBS, a local radio station. (Over the weekend before I visited in September, the South Bend Tribune reported that 130 gunshots were fired or heard in the city, including one that killed a high school student. Shooting injuries and deaths are up nearly 60 percent over the same period last year, following a period of crime decline.)

Buttigieg’s record as a city leader is central to his candidacy, given his youth. South Bend’s mayoral choice is likely to both serve as a referendum on his local legacy and influence his odds on the national stage.

Buttigieg didn’t want to leave the question of succession to chance— he endorsed Mueller, who went from chief of staff to serving as South Bend’s executive director of community investment, early in the race. Mueller won the Democratic primary in May with 37 percent of the vote, handily beating out Regina Williams-Preston—a city councilwoman who has been critical of Buttigieg’s vacant home project—and former county Democratic Party chair Jason Critchlow.

Mueller has picked up key endorsements from state leaders, too. “He has that vision, he is willing to sit down at the table with everyone necessary,” Indiana State Senator David Niezgodski told WNDU. “He is willing to fight for families and working men and people and I think hands down, he is going to be the best person that we should elect as our next mayor.”

Haas entered the race quietly in February. He may be a long shot, but he’s not a joke, the Tribune’s Colwell says. “Those who like Mayor Pete, they’re going to vote for Mueller. Those who don’t like him, or some Republicans who would like to embarrass him, they’ll vote for Haas,” he said. “In terms of specific governmental issues, nobody has paid any attention to any of that.”

Mueller is playing to this strategy. He promises to build on the progress he started by Buttigieg’s side, and to “Keep South Bend Moving Forward.” His campaign homepage features three photos of Buttigieg. Meanwhile, etched onto the back of Haas’s branded hats is a different catchphrase: “No RePetes.”

***

Mueller works a few blocks down from the Pete 2020 mural, out of the St. Joseph County Democratic Party headquarters. He’s a measured, quiet guy; he’s not a politician, he’ll tell you himself. When we sat down in a grey room he calls the “bunker” last month, I asked him if he anticipated swerving at all from the forward trajectory he and Buttigieg had forged together.

The South Bend of today is different than the one Buttigieg stepped in to lead in 2012, Mueller acknowledged: He’ll have to maintain economic growth, not create it from thin air. Mueller wants to establish a universal Pre-K program to help lower-income children and working mothers, and has proposed investing in public parks, commuter rail, and walkable neighborhoods. More broadly, Mueller talks about boosting workforce participation and local entrepreneurship, and stymieing brain drain by making South Bend a place people want to stay.

Mueller standing in downtown South Bend. (Paulo Juarez)

Mueller was what some might call a drained brain himself. He left South Bend after graduating from Notre Dame to pursue a Ph.D in ocean science and engineering at the University of Delaware. That brought him to Washington, D.C., and a job at George Washington University researching solar energy. But his family still lived in South Bend, and in 2015, he got a call from a fellow member of the St. Joseph High School class of 2000, asking if he’d return to his hometown to serve the administration.

“A lot of people [from Indiana] prefer to find opportunities elsewhere; they move to other big cities, or the coasts,” he said. “I was excited to have the opportunity to come home.”

While Mueller was in D.C., Buttigieg spent a stint as a McKinsey consultant, which informed his push to make South Bend into a modern-day “Silicon Prairie.” He poured $25 million into redesigning the city’s streets to be “smarter” (fewer one-ways; more roundabouts) and built a technology hub called Ignition Park on the dusty site of the old Studebaker plant. His first-term capstone was the “1,000 Vacant Homes in 1,000 Days” home-clearing project. Much of the attention has paid off: The downtown has appreciated $90 million in new, private investment since Buttigieg took office.

But while the east side of town has flourished, thanks in part to the presence of Notre Dame University, the predominately black and Hispanic west side has been left behind, says Michael Patton, the head of South Bend’s NAACP chapter and a longtime supporter of Buttigieg. “We have neighborhoods that are food-dry … some neighborhoods are without drug stores,” he said. “Those are the things that I would say have not happened, are not happening, and are not on the table to happen.”

And the home-clearance program has turned out to be a mixed blessing in town, and even more so on the campaign trail.

“[T]here’s this timeline crunch, so … we push forward with things and don’t think them through carefully,” Williams-Preston, who ran for mayor and serves on South Bend’s city council, told BuzzFeed News. (She declined to comment for this article, saying she was not following the mayor’s race closely.) “[P]eople were given repair orders: OK, you got two months to fix up your house or we’re gonna tear it down.” Properties she managed with her husband were casualties of the teardown spree. Other community residents alleged that Buttigieg’s team bulldozed houses without a clear plan to replace them, and that onerous fines and fees stacked up to hurt black and brown residents.

Mueller didn’t arrive in South Bend until around day 850 of the 1,000 days, he said. But as community investment director, he soon became closely involved. Addressing critics of the program, Mueller said that the administration always tried to save as many houses as they could—rehabbing 40 percent of the properties and razing about 60 percent. Now Mueller says they’re on track to flip that percentage. He stands by the value of the program, a campaign that itself stemmed from community pressure to see life brought back to dead streets.

Williams-Preston told BuzzFeed News and the Indy Star she’s been impressed with the way Buttigieg responded to community criticism. In January, he launched a $1 million home repair program, to help homeowners with renovations; the city also runs a Green Corps program to assist with clean energy retrofits.

“There seems to be a pushback … of what’s been accomplished—or maybe not even a pushback, but a denial that there’s been progress made over the past eight years,” said Mueller. “We were a city that had been in a decline since our peak, before Studebaker closed. And if you go around, you can tell there’s a belief in the city again. There’s an ambition that we’re going to be back into a growth mindset, rather than a managing-decline mindset.”

***

Haas, who is also a South Bend native, doesn’t deny that the city has been transformed, he told me as we perched on high-top chairs downtown at a café called the Chicory Lounge. He just thinks everyone’s paying attention to the wrong metrics.

“I can give credit where credit is due: The downtown has changed significantly in the last 10 years,” he said. “But is it sustainable? They’re building high rises while the foundation is crumbling beneath it.”

He’d spent the day teaching history at a neighboring town’s K-12 school—he used to work in a South Bend alternative school. When he’s not home with his wife and 6-year-old daughter, he usually spends his evenings like this: talking to reporters and voters about his dark-horse run to derail Mayor Pete’s hand-picked successor.

“Did he tell you we went to grade school together?” he asked. He and Mueller were classmates as kids at St. Anthony de Padua Catholic School (Mueller hadn’t told me). His opponent hasn’t changed a bit, he said. “Still smart. He’s a reserved guy, but still—a lot of respect for James.”

Running as a Republican for mayor in South Bend, as Sean Haas is, hasn’t been a winning proposition in many decades. (Sean Haas for Mayor/Facebook)

As for their political differences, Haas says he considers himself more of a centrist than Republican; it had been years since he voted in a primary. He says he voted for Obama in 2008. When I asked who he supported in the 2016 election, he said he “probably” voted for a third-party candidate, though he couldn’t recall, exactly.

“It’s different when you put an R next to your name in this town. It really boxes you in in a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “For me, it was the pro-life issue—I don’t like abortion. That was it.” (Later, he clarified his position, saying that he believes that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” but says that in the years after Roe v. Wade, abortion “hasn’t been rare enough.”)

The clearest gap between the candidates appears when they talk about race and policing, as they did in South Bend’s mayoral debate on October 1 at Indiana University South Bend, where Haas went to college. It was in response to a question submitted, in various iterations, by nearly 20 voters, and it was was the first one of the night.

“Essentially, people asked questions like this,” said the moderator, Elizabeth Bennion, a professor of political science at IU South Bend. “What can you do to promote effectiveness of the police force while not alienating the community, including members of minority communities?”

Buttigieg has already had to address this question nationally, and at home. The issue emerged during his first term in office, when then-chief Daryl Boykins, the first African American to hold the job, obtained copies of tapes that he alleged featured his colleagues making racial slurs.

A federal investigation was opened into whether Boykins and the department’s communications director had secretly recorded the officers, and when the Mayor’s office found out he was suspected of violating federal wiretapping laws, Boykins was demoted, a decision he claims was made because of his race. Despite pressure to release the tapes, Buttigieg has declined, saying he doesn’t want to violate federal wiretap law or get in the way of a pending investigation. Instead, the city settled with Boykins and the officers involved, and has since pulled away from the legal proceedings. Now, South Bend’s Common Council is subpoenaing the tapes themselves.

“At this point it would be nice to actually have the tapes so we could move on,” Mueller told me, when we met. “But that’s going to be up to the courts.”

Friction between the South Bend Police Department and the community has only intensified since. Recruiting issues plague the force. While the city’s population is 26 percent African American, only 5 percent of South Bend police officers are black. This summer, Ryan O’Neill, a white officer, fatally shot Eric Logan, a black man who was apparently a suspect in a car break-in. Though the department has a body-camera policy, the officer’s camera was not on during the incident. In a June town hall with African American South Bend residents, Buttigieg faced jeers as he tried to address the circumstances surrounding Logan’s death. The shooting also came up at a presidential debate later that month. There, the mayor appeared to take full responsibility for the discord between police and the community: “I didn’t get it done,” he said.

Jordan Giger, an organizer with South Bend Black Lives Matter, told me that in an August meeting with the group, it seemed to him that Buttigieg was just going through the motions, without committing to taking action. “We’re seeing all of these problems within the police force—we’re still seeing intimidation, harassment of black and low-income people in our community, and there’s no accountability,” said Giger. Black Lives Matter has called on Buttigieg to fire the current chief, Scott Ruszkowski; Giger hopes that whoever becomes the new mayor will do so if Buttigieg does not.

Haas has the opposite critique: He thinks that, in response to anger from black South Bend residents in the aftermath of the shooting, Buttigieg threw the police department “under the bus,” and that the mayor’s indecisiveness has managed to inflame both sides. “Not only did the African American community have a backlash against him, the police did too,” Haas told me. “That’s a pretty tough thing to do to upset both of those with one set of comments.”

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office says Buttigieg has stood by his response. The County Prosecutor's Office has launched an outside investigation and an internal review of the police department; the city is also engaging the community to asses use-of-force and vehicle pursuit policies, along with training and recruiting practices.

Before the findings of the shooting investigation are released, Mueller says that, as mayor, he would not take punitive action on the force. Instead, he is promoting a “Reforming Public Safety” plan to strengthen group violence intervention (GVI) programs first championed by Buttigieg, expand opportunities and job programs for at-risk youth, and direct more resources into investigating crimes that cause non-fatal injuries. He notes that though Haas is right—violent crime has increased in South Bend this year—the spike in shootings, especially, comes after a period of overall crime decline.

Most crime in the city is driven by less than 1 percent of the population, said a spokesperson for Buttigieg, echoing research out of the National Network for Safe Communities. GVI programs aim to intervene in the live of those particular individuals’ lives: At the debate, Mueller said he hoped Haas’ emphasis on public safety wouldn’t manifest in more widespread stop-and-frisk policies.

Haas has said he’d lean on community and micro-community policing tactics, holding barbecues and encouraging officers to volunteer in local schools. (Community-police events like this are already held regularly by the Buttigieg administration, a spokesperson said.) He’d also increase the number of police in the department. The Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s police union, has endorsed him.

Both candidates call public safety their number-one priority—“not just being safe, but feeling safe,” Mueller said during the debate.

But policy changes can only go so far, Mueller added. To really rebuild a foundation of trust between the community and the police, it’s time for South Bend to have tough conversations about the role of systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

Haas disagreed. “I don’t believe that systemic racism is part of our policing,” he countered from the other podium. “Are there individuals that are racist? Absolutely. But I think the United States is by far the least racist country in the world.”

“I don’t even know where you would begin,” Mueller said in response. “How would you start a conversation with folks on the west side if you’re not acknowledging all the pain and hurt they’re feeling?”

Local black leaders condemned Haas’ debate comment, and praised Mueller’s. “Certainly, the Republican candidate is ill-informed,” said NAACP’s Patton. “It just says he doesn’t have his hands on the pulse of our community, and doesn’t understand the make-up of our community, and the diversity of it, and the challenges.”

Mueller, on the other hand, “has proven that he has follow-through and that he’s organized, and that he has a heart for our city, and understands the makeup of our city as well,” Patton added.

But lingering distrust of past administrations could follow Mueller to City Hall. Davin Hackett, a police officer who worked for South Bend from 2006 to 2017 and who’s now an officer for the neighboring town of Elkhart, filed complaints against two South Bend police chiefs, alleging he was denied promotions and assignments due to discrimination. Between the two current candidates, he says he prefers Haas—because of his candor, his action-oriented nature, and his emphasis on bringing back trade skills to schools. Mueller is all about “having conversations,” he told me. South Bend has had enough of those. (In November, Hackett will be running for the South Bend city council, and has the support of South Bend Black Lives Matter.)

New leadership isn’t the only solution, Giger says: The department would benefit from more citizen oversight of the police. Giger wants the next mayor to institute a civilian review board, and allow more residents to join the city-led, majority-minority Board of Public Safety, which is now composed of three to five mayoral appointees. Buttigieg’s spokesperson says that after an application process conducted this year, the mayor is about to appoint a civilian representative in the coming weeks, and that he’s also looking to Tucson, Arizona’s “critical incident review board” for best practices.

“What we need is really reform in our local electoral system: We need ranked-choice voting,” said Giger, who says the town’s left-leaning Democrats may have voted for Mueller instead of more progressive primary candidates like Williams-Preston because they were more concerned with cornering out Critchlow, an establishment figure who has long been aligned with the police. “We’ve got to stop electing the lesser of two evils.”

***

It’s easier to position Haas and Mueller as foils to Buttigieg than as distinct local political thinkers, whose plans for South Bend will reverberate there for years to come. Indeed, they’ve climbed into those boxes themselves. But it’s meaningful that the biggest fundamental disagreement between these two white Midwestern grade-school classmates is about race and its role in their city. Five years after Ferguson, South Bend’s reckoning has been a long time coming.

For the country, this conversation matters, too, especially in a presidential race where the mayor’s experience governing a city, and his appeal to black voters, are both his biggest claim and barrier to credibility. (A July poll showed that, even after releasing a “Douglass Plan” designed to address American racial disparities, Buttigieg was polling at 0 percent among black Democratic voters nationwide.)

Back when we first spoke in January, Buttigieg told me that mayors are ideal candidates for president, because of the “immediacy and backyard accountability” of the job. “The bottom line is we’ve got to deliver safe drinking water, pick up the trash, and also figure out an economic future for our communities,” he said. And they have to face their constituents every day. But this also makes them subject to laser-focused scrutiny: Even if you like your mayor, you can find things to hate.

Buttigieg and I met again last month, to talk about how he would assist cities like his in the fight against climate change. We spoke by the side of the St. Joseph River, where, over the course of just 18 months, two major floods had hit. During our conversation, nearby residents poked their heads out the doors to get a good look at him. One woman sidled down from her front porch—where she said the water had reached, during the worst of the flooding—and asked to get a picture with the mayor in front of her favorite tree. She beamed as he left, telling me she thought he was doing a wonderful job, and that she’d be voting for Mueller, for continuity’s sake.

In recent decades, South Bend’s Democratic primary winner has easily prevailed in the general election. Turnout in the May primary was low: Only 15 percent of registered voters cast ballots, 88 percent of whom were Democratic. Haas, running unopposed for the Republican nomination, only received 900 votes; Mueller, who faced eight opponents, more than 4,000. “People are very interested in national politics, but they just aren’t much interested in the mayor’s race,” said Colwell. “Part of that is that perception that, hey, when Mueller won the Democratic primary, he was elected mayor, in fact.”

But how he gets elected could still matter, Colwell says, both for Buttigieg and for the city. In the primary, Mueller lost two predominately African American districts. “I think a lot of people—including, perhaps, people nationally—are wondering, how is Pete regarded now in his hometown—will he receive a vote of confidence, in a way?” Colwell said. “Will his choice be elected big, in those African American precincts? Or is there still some problem there?”

Despite his long odds, Haas says he’s feeling “very confident” in the final weeks of his campaign. “People are kind of fed up; it’s taken a long time to see what happens when a single political party has been in charge for so long,” he said. “I’m hoping that the voters in South Bend are willing to take a chance on a Republican.”

Equally assured in his own experience and his track record, Mueller says he’s looking forward to continuing South Bend’s journey to be a leader in the state, and the country. “That’s when we’ll know we’re back—we’re fully back,” he said.

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