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Can Buttigieg Keep Up Momentum In Presidential Race?

Pete and Chasten Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten at his presidential campaign kickoff in South Bend. (Steve Burns, WFIU/WTIU News)

If you hadn’t heard of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, that probably changed this week.

Mayor Pete, as he likes to be called, made a two-day swing through Iowa to kick off his presidential campaign, and spent his spare moments making appearances on national TV.

It’s part of a whirlwind week that started with his official campaign announcement.

Pete Buttigieg at presidential announcement
Buttigieg became South Bend Mayor in 2011. (Steve Burns, WFIU/WTIU News)

Buttigieg's Track Record As Mayor

The same year Pete Buttigieg won his first term as South Bend mayor, NewsWeek included the community on a list of dying cities. The article focused on communtiies with the biggest drop in overall population and residents under the age of 18. 

“What is particularly troubling for this small city is that the number of young people declined by 2.5% during the previous decade, casting further doubt on whether this city will ever be able to recover,” the article said.

Buttigieg used that as a rallying cry.

"I ran for mayor in 2011 knowing that nothing like Studebaker would ever come back," Buttigieg said during his presidential campaign announcement. "But believing that we would, our city would if we had the courage to reimagine our future."

The former Studebaker plant where Buttigieg announced his run for president is now being repurposed as a tech hub. And it’s that kind of innovation, Buttigieg says, he would bring to the White House.

Buttigieg has pointed to his successes as mayor as qualification enough for the nation’s highest office – even though no one in history has ever made such a leap.

He boasts about the more than $100 million in economic development downtown’s seen since South Bend’s Smarts Street initiative, which most notably converted one-way streets to two way.

And he talks about reversing the trend of people leaving South Bend. U.S. Census data shows an estimated population increase of 1% from 2010 to 2017.

"More people are moving into South Bend than we’ve seen in a generation," Buttigieg says. "Thousands of new jobs have been added in our area, billions in investment."

But, even some of Buttigieg’s supporters acknowledge much of that investment went to downtown.

"I think he should try to focus more on the neighborhoods," says South Bend resident Juan Mendoza. 

Vacant lot in South Bend
A vacant lot sits where an abandoned house once stood on South Bend's west side. (Steve Burns, WFIU/WTIU News)

The city did spend money in neighborhoods as part of Buttigieg’s plan to address 1000 vacant properties in 1000 days. The city repaired some homes, but tore most of them down. That left several empty lots on some blocks with no plans for reuse. 

And other critics, including Indiana’s Republican Party, are quick to point out Buttigieg doesn’t deserve sole credit for the city’s successes.  

In a press release sent out ahead of the event, the Republican Party points out the state gave $3.5 million through its Regional Cities Initiative to help restore the shuttered Studebaker building. 

"After weeks of slinging mug at Vice President Mike Pence, Pete Buttigieg picked a location for his announcement that's very revitalization was made possible because of support and state funding championed by Mike Pence when he served as governor," Republican Party Chair Kyle Hupfer said in the release. 

Downs: Buttigieg Still A Long Shot Candidate

As Buttigieg's profile continues to rise, experts say Buttigieg's record as mayor will start to be more closely scrutinized. 

Andrew Downs is Executive Director of the Mike Downs Center For Indiana Politics. He says Buttigieg taking credit for efforts that improved South Bend when they're the result of several peoples' work could hurt him. 

"Looking at his record more carefully, turns out Studebaker isn’t just him. In fact, a lot of people would point out it’s not just him, it’s a lot of other entities," Downs says. "In fact, they can make an argument about the Chase building downtown. That’s not him, that’s a lot of people."

Downs says critics will also likely latch onto Buttigieg's lack of experience dealing with international affairs and other more complex issues. But it's his experience with local government that appeals to so many of his fans. 

"I think the actual on-the-ground experience he's had in South Bend being mayor, doing the day-to-day, the bottom-up experience is pretty valuable," says Joseph Leeper, who drove 27 hours from Arizona to witness Buttigieg's presidential announcement. "And, you could stack it up against any other experience other candidates have."

Buttigieg's campaign staff says they raised an additional $1 million within just a few hours of his announcement Sunday. 

The challenge will be keeping that momentum up. Downs says people are asking whether Buttigieg's peaked too early, with months to go until anyone casts an actual vote.

"He definitely still is a longshot, and I believe that works in his favor today," Downs says. "Because it means the expectations he has to meet aren't as high."

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