“Mayor Pete” Buttigieg’s now officially running for the Democratic nomination for President, and before long we’ll see if he can make the transformation from precocious (37-year old) “flavor of the moment” and all-purpose vessel for so many anti-Trump hopes to durable candidate. I’m hesitant to say, because I was among the vast majority of skeptics that Mr. Trump’s own 2016 run had a prayer of success.
What I do feel confident in saying is that anyone will find their work cut out for them if they try (as they should) to assess his record as Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and especially his claim to have been a “turnaround” expert whose experience qualifies him to steer the American economy effectively.
The first problem they’ll encounter is finding South Bend-specific data during Buttigieg’s tenure (2012-2017). Not that statistics on U.S. cities’ economic performance are the slightest bit scarce. The Census Bureau collects and post oceans of it. But when it comes to South Bend, these figures tend to be lumped in with those for neighboring Mishawaka – which is wealthier. (See here and here for the evidence supporting that assertion and much of the following city-specific numbers.). Indeed, its median household income and property values are significantly higher, and its poverty rate much lower. So it’s tough to find many of these numbers and identify where whatever progress is shown during the whole of the Buttigieg years (and progress is definitely shown on indicators like economic and employment growth, and improvement in income per head) has taken place in which city.
Those that are available, however, aren’t especially flattering to South Bend. For example, between 2013 and 2016, South Bend’s median income advanced by 3.64 percent. Mishawaka’s (higher) median income rose by 4.35 percent. During that time, South Bend’s poverty rate fell by 3.92 percent (to 26.73 percent). But Mishawaka’s plummeted by 19.66 percent (to 17.41 percent).
It’s important to note that these data say nothing about the situation beforehand – so there’s no way to tell whether Buttigieg’s South Bend performed worse still before 2013, and therefore to know about at least some of the context of the 2013-2016 figures. But such numbers can be found for overall population – which matters because Buttigieg has emphasized that South Bend finally arrested a long population decline while he was in charge.
He’s right. From 2012 to 2017, the number of city inhabitants rose by 1.25 percent after decreasing by 3.21 percent during the previous five years. Mishawaka’s population (which is only about half of South Bend’s) loss between 2007 and 2012 was comparable – 3.12 percent. Yet during the 2012-2017 period was a more impressive 2.29 percent. (See here and here for the data.)
Even accepting as useful the combined South Bend-Mishawaka statistics raises problems, though. Chiefly, it’s tough to find meaningful comparisons that can shed light on the area’s performance versus similar regions throughout the rest of the country. It’s pointless to compare South Bend-Mishawaka’s economic or employment growth with that of U.S. urban areas as a whole (which U.S. Commerce Department figures permit) because the latter is such a diverse group. After all, no one can reasonably hope to learn much meaningful by examining South Bend-Mishawaka side-by-side with New York or Los Angeles.
But the obstacles to finding metropolitan areas similar to South Bend-Mishawaka are formidable because of one of its major features – large and wealthy Notre Dame University. The school is a major contributor to the region’s economy, but the resulting situation is unique in Indiana because it’s a private, not state institution. In fact, it’s hard to come up with any South Bend-sized American cities hosting a single major private university. The only one that’s occurred to me is way out in Washington State, where Spokane (with a population roughly twice as big as South Bend proper) is home to Gonzaga University (whose enrollment is somewhat smaller than Notre Dame’s).
In fact, not only has Notre Dame given Buttigieg a major advantage not enjoyed by many, if any, of his genuine mayor peers. As early as the 1990s, it began to change its practice of standing aside from the city economically and using its resources to promote the economic and specifically technology-oriented business development that’s been a big Buttigieg rhetorical theme. Moreover, the city’s centerpiece economic revitalization project – the $200 million Eddy Street Commons – mainly resulted from a partnership between the university and a realty group.
Further, as is the case with state and local level leaders generally, their control over their jurisdictions’ economies is usually far from absolute – and the more local they are, typically the less control. In this vein, it’s especially interesting that South Bend economic development efforts under Buttigieg were major were major beneficiaries of a municipal grant program put into effect by Vice President Mike Pence when he was Indiana governor. This year, the openly gay Buttigieg has spent considerable time attacking Pence for his allegedly bigoted views about homosexuality.
Perhaps even more important, Buttigieg had the good fortune to enter office in South Bend just as ecovery from the worst national economic slump since the Great Depression was finally gaining some momentum.
Not that Buttigieg doesn’t deserve credit for helping to attract considerable investment to South Bend. Revealingly, among those who make this case most convincingly are Indiana journalists. And at least as revealingly, South Bend voters have emphatically agreed on his effectiveness. Fully 80 percent of them voted to reelect Buttigieg in 2015 – even more than the 74 percent who supported him in his first mayoral run. (See this link for the numbers.) Will voters outside his hometown give this record rave reviews, too? The answer is likely to go far toward determining whether Buttigieg has a prayer of becoming “Nominee Pete,” much less “President Pete.”