South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks to College Democrats at ND
Clare Kossler | Wednesday, September 9, 2015
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg shared lessons from his political career with the College Democrats and articulated his administration’s policy and his future aspirations for the city Tuesday in DeBartolo Hall.
Buttigieg, himself a member of the College Democrats during his undergraduate years at Harvard, said while South Bend has struggled economically in the past, he thinks the city is on the right track to full recovery.
“You’re in South Bend in an extraordinary moment in the history of the city, because we’re on the rebound,” he said. “We have had the fastest population growth in 25 years. It wasn’t much, but the fact that it’s positive numbers itself is pretty exciting.”
Buttigieg said crucial to the recovery of South Bend — and one of the cornerstones of his administration — is the ability of its municipal leaders to listen to the needs of the average citizen. Indeed, he listed his ability to respond effectively to his constituency as one of the reasons for his election to the office of mayor in 2011.
“We entered a five-way race where I was not the most credible candidate coming into it,” he said. “We built credibility by talking and listening to voters and having a message that really spoke to where South Bend is at.”
He said one of the challenges he faced coming into office and even during the mayoral race itself was that South Bend was regarded by many as a dying city. In fact, Buttigieg said South Bend was listed by Newsweek magazine as one of 10 dying cities of America the very week he declared his candidacy.
Buttigieg said part of the reason for South Bend’s past economic troubles was the large amount of vacant and abandoned properties still leftover from the closure of the South Bend Studebaker factory over 50 years ago.
“Even though we’re best known for the University of Notre Dame, we actually didn’t grow up around education as a city. We grew up around industry,” he said.
In order to combat the city’s vacancy problem, Buttigieg said his administration unveiled the “1,000 homes in 1,000 days” program, which aims to demolish or renovate 1,000 of the city’s abandoned houses over the course of 1,000 days. Already, he said, the city is on its 975th house after only about 900 days of the project being in place.
“It’s kind of unsexy, but it makes a huge difference,” he said.
Among his administration’s other “unsexy” undertakings, he said, is the creation of a smart sewer system. Buttigieg said South Bend is the first city in the world to put its sewer system on the Cloud.
“The rest of the world is getting more productive thanks to technology — why shouldn’t cities?” he said.
But even considering its recent growth, Buttigieg said South Bend still faces a number of challenges.
“Our industrial past is a great thing in terms of having brought us here, but it also means that we’ve struggled for 50 years to adjust,” he said. “It’s taken my entire first term as mayor just to get people ready to believe in the city.”
Still, Buttigieg said he has seen an improvement in the outlook of South Bend since he took office in 2012, in part evidenced by the city’s recent 150-year anniversary celebration.
“Honestly, what has made the biggest difference is people believing in the city, and having a celebration of our city … cemented the awareness that our city is back,” he said. “I think it was the perfect hinge point for being in the middle of this decade, which I think will go down in history — if we keep pushing — as the most transformative decade our city has ever had.”
Buttigieg said he thinks this decade is particularly historic for a number of reasons, including the city’s recent push towards acceptance of all members of society. Having recently come out publicly as gay in an essay published in the South Bend Tribune, Buttigieg said one of his greatest concerns as a politician is equality.
“I really want to be judged in my job based on, ‘Are we filling the potholes, and are we generating jobs, and is the city coming back?’” he said. “I will absolutely be outspoken on LGBT issues and especially when fairness comes into play.”
And for now, Buttigieg said, he is exclusively focusing on the mayoral election. He said he does not currently have aspirations to run for state or federal office.
“Right now, I’m just thinking about the city,” he said. “I know it’s not a job I can do forever, but I’ll do it as long as it’s the place I can make the most impact. … This may be the last office I ever run for, and it might not.”
Looking towards the future, Buttigieg said he thinks the involvement of students and young people is essential to the continued recovery of the city. He said the many joint projects between South Bend and Notre Dame “could put South Bend on the map as one of the great city-university collaborations in America.”
“If you could pick one thing to put in the middle of your city, as a mayor — a waterfall, an NFL team — what you would pick would be a world class university, and we have that,” he said. “Which is exactly why South Bend is not going to die. South Bend is going to grow.”