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The Allure of Mayor Pete

Below is the Nowak Metro Finance Lab Newsletter shared biweekly by Bruce Katz.  

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On Monday, Iowa gave a significant boost to the candidacy of Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Although the results (incredibly) are not final, Mayor Pete defied recent expectations set by the national media, political pundits and a raft of polls. His performance has prompted me to re-publish an oped that appeared in the Financial Times on December 15, 2019. The opinion piece was my effort to explain how a little-known mayor of a small city could ascend so quickly in in the scrum that is Democratic Party politics.

I first met Mayor Pete in South Bend in November 2017, during the inaugural gathering of Accelerator for America, the city problem solving intermediary co-founded by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Rick Jacobs. Jeremy Nowak and I then worked with him, his team and Accelerator for America to help invent (along with Mayor Greg Fischer in Louisville and Mayor David Holt in Oklahoma City) an Opportunity Zone Investment Prospectus, a tool which has now been adopted by 58 cities.

Whatever the outcome of the Democratic primaries, the United States has been introduced to one of those remarkable political talents that emerge from time to time in this country, a rare combination of high intelligence, high-mindedness, humility and humor. Take a look at the oped and tell me what you think.

Mayor Pete’s story makes him an ideal presidential candidate
Financial Times, December 15, 2019


Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has been one of the big surprises so far in the 2020 presidential campaign. A few recent polls show Mayor Pete, as he is commonly known, leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states in line to vote for the nominee of the Democratic Party.

This defies conventional wisdom on several fronts. At 37, Buttigieg is young and mayor of a small city (about 100,000 people). With the exception of former general Dwight Eisenhower and Donald Trump, modern presidents have previously served as vice presidents, US senators or state governors.

Mr. Buttigieg’s personal history combines traditional values and new territory: a person of deep faith and an Afghanistan war veteran, he is also gay and recently married, multi-lingual, a Harvard graduate, a Rhodes Scholar and a former McKinsey consultant. His rise reflects the changing nature of American politics and society.

Many voters want Washington to work more like cities or counties, where elected officials are expected to solve problems, and are routinely turfed out if they fail to get projects done. To this end, running a city may be the right kind of experience for those who want to govern in this complex age.

Mayors play a unique role in American governance. They often have to be pragmatic rather than rigidly partisan. To succeed, they must connect the dots between real-world problems, horizontally linking housing, environment and transportation rather than managing vertically organized bureaucracies, as in the federal and state governments. The best ones work across sectors, bringing together corporate, philanthropic and university leaders to design, finance and deliver solutions.

Citizens expect mayors to show empathy as their cities face the carnage of gun violence, the ravages of the opioid crisis and the tragedy of homelessness. And good city leaders must exhibit intellectual agility to tackle persistent challenges such as poverty and new challenges such as climate change. Mayors embody the bottom-up, networked, and inter-disciplinary problem-solving that Jeremy Nowak and I dubbed “New Localism.”

Second, Mr. Buttigieg’s resume puts him a good position to address one of the key issues in the campaign: how to help urban and rural places left behind by globalization and legacy policies. He hails from a former industrial city that lost its major manufacturing employer, the Studebaker auto company, 56 years ago, forcing the community to find a new raison d’etre with minimal state or federal help.

Mr. Buttigieg has repositioned South Bend, which is home to the University of Notre Dame, as a “beta city” for new technologies and policies such as life-long learning. The former Studebaker factory is now home to start-up and scale-up companies driven by local research, talent and investment. One of his signature accomplishments was demolishing or rehabilitating 1,000 abandoned houses in 1,000 days.

Mr. Buttigieg’s age, military service and work history have exposed him to the power and possibilities of technology as well as the disruptions that are coming from artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, genomics and a host of other next generation technologies.

His candidacy raises the intriguing prospect that federal policy will be reverse engineered (with local innovations driving federal program design) and hyper flexible, allowing local leaders to fit federal resources to local priorities rather than the other way around.

Beyond policy, Mr. Buttigieg has attracted voters with a mix of authenticity, intelligence and steadiness. Those qualities position him as the complete opposite, in temperament and character, of Mr. Trump. In many respects, that is his pitch in this contest.

The Democratic race remains highly fluid. The Iowa caucuses will be held on February 3 — a lifetime away in presidential politics. The first two states to vote are not emblematic of the changing demographics of the nation. Polls suggest that Mayor Pete has yet to register with Black and Latino voters, who play a larger role in later primaries. The late entrance of another mayor, Mike Bloomberg, who ran New York for 12 years, may also shake up the race.

But one thing is clear: Mr. Buttigieg’s rise reflects not only his personal appeal but also the emergence of cities and city leadership as driving forces of national renewal. American federalism — the way the United States governs itself — is changing in fundamental ways. As with South Bend’s old Studebaker factory, there is no going back.