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Mayor connects politics, ethics to experience

Vicky Moreno | Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In a time when politics is more often a punch line in a comedy sketch than the act of governing constituents, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s lecture about ethics and politics sent a timely, relevant message to the Notre Dame community.

A South Bend native, Harvard alumnus and Rhodes Scholar, Buttigieg talked to students Tuesday afternoon as a part of the Mendoza College of Business’s 2013 Ethics Week Lecture Series and provided perspective on the intersection of politics and ethics.

“I fear that sometimes the word ‘politics’ is spoken and the last thing on people’s mind is ethics,” Buttigieg said.

The mayor spoke candidly about the nation’s low public opinion of politicians, citing a poll released Jan. 8 by Public Policy Polling that revealed people preferred colonoscopies, NFL replacement referees and Nickelback to Congress, though the U.S. legislative branch ranked ahead of the Ebola virus, Fidel Castro and Lindsay Lohan.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the ethical and the political,” Buttigieg said.

In order to bridge that fundamental gap, Buttigieg said, politicians must frame their public life and action within two questions: “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
“Now, I don’t mean, ‘Who am I’ in the philosophical sense,” he said. “You need to understand who you are in the sense of what role you play, in what capacity you are making a decision.”

The mayor said he personally answered that first question while visiting the site of a child homicide in South Bend to “get a feel for the place” that had been the site of a tragedy. However, his public role as mayor coincided with his personal feelings on the situation as he noticed the mother of the victim.

“I almost didn’t go speak with her because I was so anxious,” Buttigieg said. “But it meant so much that I talked to her, and it wasn’t because of anything I said. It was because I was the mayor, and it meant something that the city cared.”

The mayor also addressed the tension politicians experience between representing the wishes of their constituents and leading their constituents based on what they believe to be in the people’s best interests.

“You want to be faithful to your voters, but at the same time you can’t lead by standing still,” said Buttigieg.

In this vein, Buttigieg mentioned President Lyndon B. Johnson as a leader who was “very politically devious” but who ultimately made great strides for voting rights.

“When something as meaningful as voting rights for America is on the line, is it worth it to play the game?” Buttigieg said.

When the conversation shifted to address the second question of, the mayor emphasized the importance of job as a means to achieve one’s goals instead of viewing a job as the ultimate goal.

“If the job is your goal, then as soon as you get the job, you have finished your purposeful journey,” Buttigieg said.

Although his academic pursuits took him all over the globe, Buttigieg said he returned to his hometown to make a difference where he knew he could and where it would matter most.

“Life brings into confrontation the conflicts and tensions between our roles and our purpose, but in the end, the way in which we resolve those tensions is what we are made of.”

Contact Vicky Moreno at [email protected]