The First Mayor to Become President?

Pete Buttigieg, in his eighth and final year as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a formerly shrinking Rust Belt city, is on a roll in his bid to capture the Democratic nomination to challenge President Trump next year. The Indy Star looks at his record.

3 minute read

April 3, 2019, 6:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

mayor of South Bend

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg campaigning in February 2019. | Marc Nozell / Flickr

"Democrat Pete Buttigieg said Monday that his presidential exploratory committee raised over $7 million in the first quarter of 2019," reports Daniel Strauss for POLITICO. "The number is likely to put Buttigieg in the upper echelon of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls as they publicize their first-quarter fundraising numbers over the next two weeks."

When Mayor Pete Buttigieg (pronounced Boot-a-judge or Buddha-judge or Boot-edge-edge) of South Bend, Indiana, began his first term in 2012, he became the youngest mayor of a city over 100,000. Now in his final year as mayor of the state's fourth largest city, the 37-year-old candidate hopes to become America's youngest president. He launched his presidential exploratory committee on January 23.

"He’s the 'hottest candidate in the 2020 race,' according to CNN," writes Lisa Lerer in her "On Politics" column in The New York Times on March 28. "New Yorkers love him more than their own mayor. "

The year before Buttigieg took office, Newsweek listed South Bend as one of the top 10 dying cities in America, notes an August 2017 post by Planetizen managing editor James Brasuell about Buttigieg's efforts to transform what Mayor Pete calls "the beating heart of our entire region," the aging Studebaker factory that shut its doors in 1963, into a center of high-tech innovation. [Listen to the source article on Public Radio International.]

Unlike many, if not most medium-to-large coastal cities, Buttigieg doesn't measure progress by how many homes have been built – it's the opposite. Until 2014, South Bend, like many a Midwestern rust belt city, has been shrinking.

"Back in 2011, when Buttigieg was a 29-year-old knocking on doors to ask for votes, he heard the same question time and time again: What are you going to do about all of the vacant homes?" reports Chris Sikich for The Indianapolis Star in a deep-dive on the mayor's efforts to examine Buttigieg's claims that South Bend is now a "turnaround city."

Studebaker employed more than 24,000 workers at its height in the 1950s. As South Bend's population shrank by roughly a quarter over the five decades following its demise, large swaths of neighborhoods were left abandoned and crumbling.

Sikich describes Buttigieg's strategy to demolish or have homeowners repair dwellings. "Buttigieg decided to promote an aggressive timetable — 1,000 homes in 1,000 days [pdf]. The goal was surpassed, with 60 percent demolished and 40 percent repaired, and continues to this day. 

Sikich continues his deep dive into the mayor's claims that South Bend is a "turnaround city." As with any city that is now experiencing investment, the fear of gentrification in the city "which is roughly 54 percent white, 26 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic" is real.

Complete streets initiative

"During his second term, he constructed safer, more appealing 'Smart Streets' as part of downtown placemaking," according to his city government mayoral webpage. A photo in Indy Star shows "bike-friendly paths and roads are the result of an infrastructure initiative by Mayor Pete Buttigieg in downtown South Bend."

In fact, "Smart Streets, which has eliminated one-way streets, narrowed them to slow traffic, widened and beautified sidewalks with new trees and decorative brickwork, and created new bike paths," was a factor in the downtown's revival, reported Jeff Parrott for the South Bend Tribune.

First mayor to be president?

Should Buttigieg win his party's nomination, not only would he be the first openly gay candidate of a major party for president, he would also be the first sitting mayor to receive the nomination, according to Nathaniel Rakich, FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst. However, Anthony Williams, who served as the mayor of Washington, D.C. from 1999 until 2007, writes in CityLab that DeWitt Clinton was nominated in 1812 by the Fusion Party and lost to incumbent James Madison.

Sorry, this correspondent can't determine whether Clinton was mayor of New York City at the time or lieutenant governor of New York State. In any case, both writers agree that a sitting mayor has never been elected to president.

Additional reading:

Related in Planetizen:

Thursday, March 21, 2019 in The Indianapolis Star

View of downtown Los Angeles at golden hour from top of grassy hill with wooden bench in Vista Hermosa Natural Park

Downtown Los Angeles Park Wins National Award

Vista Hermosa Natural Park, designed by the landscape architecture firm Studio-MLA, has won the ASLA 2023 Landmark Award. Completed in 2008, Vista Hermosa was the first public park built in downtown L.A. in over 100 years.

September 11, 2023 - ASLA The Dirt

View of small-town street with brick buildings and cars parked in diagonal parking with string lights going across street in Cleveland County, Oklahoma.

Norman, Oklahoma Eliminates Parking Mandates

The city made a subtle, one-word change that frees up developers to build parking based on actual need and eliminates costly unnecessary parking.

September 14, 2023 - Next City

Few passengers waiting in subway station with multiple platforms and "North Station" signs in Boston, Massachusetts

Boston Transit Riders Report Safety Concerns

Almost three-quarters of current and former riders report feeling unsafe while using MBTA services.

September 18, 2023 - Hoodline

Google street view of back of brick building housing bar in Nashville, Tennessee

Nashville Opens First Permanent Parklet

The city recently created a parklet permit process designed to help local businesses replace street parking with interactive public spaces.

16 minutes ago - Nashville Tennessean

Fast paced scene with people bike and cars at the busy intersection of 14th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City.

When it Comes to Transportation, It’s All About Options

Debunking the notion of the personal automobile as liberator.

1 hour ago - Strong Towns

Mosaic mural at Little Tokyo/Arts District transit station in downtown Los Angeles.

Prioritizing Equity in Federal Transit Funding

TransitCenter recommends several transit capital projects deserving of federal transportation dollars.

September 20 - TransitCenter

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.