Why South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg Could Be DNC Chair

This 35-year old mayor has won campaigns as the face of change before, so after weeks of consideration, he will run for DNC chair in February 2017.


SOUTH BEND, IND. -- Mayor Peter Buttigieg announced that he will run for the next chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), against front runners U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and outgoing U.S. Labor Secretary, Thomas Perez along with Democratic party chairs Ray Buckley of New Hampshire, Jaime Harrison of South Carolina and Sally Boynton-Brown of Idaho.

Locals say he could be the dark horse that emerges victorious -- if and when members of the DNC deadlock on Ellison and Perez. Ellison and Perez were on opposite sides during the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primary, with the outgoing Labor Secretary backing Hillary Clinton and Ellison supporting Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

While he knows he doesn’t have national celebrity on the side of his campaign for DNC chair, Buttigieg has pulled off unexpected wins before.

He became mayor of South Bend, a working class Midwestern city of 100,000, in 2011 when he was 29 years old. He won 54 percent of the votes, he was surprised at the level of victory and attributed it to the city’s bipartisan desire for a “fresh start.” By the 2015 election, he won his reelection by more than 80 percent.

Jason Critchlow, chairman of South Bend’s St. Joseph County Democratic Party, told Politico in December 2016, “I mean it’s not just that he’s this rising star in Indiana. With the problems that the Democratic Party is facing right now, here’s a guy in Indiana that’s succeeding on all levels with every level of voter, the blue collar voter, the white collar, professional voters. So it doesn’t surprise me at all, especially given his background.”

Why Peter Buttigieg?

In 2014 the Washington Post called him the “Most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of,” because in February that year, Buttigieg was deployed for active duty as a lieutenant in Afghanistan. He has been a Navy Reservist since 2009. He returned about six months later, leaving the city to an administration he had been building for three years. He reported in the South Bend Tribune that while he was away jobs increased, gang-related gun violence fell and progress addressing vacant properties continued.

He’s not just interesting because he might be the only mayor to ever serve active duty while in office, but also because he is openly gay, a former Oxford University Rhodes Scholar and Harvard University graduate, plays piano, and has a clear knack for leveraging innovation that leads to civic success for the city of South Bend.

He’s ushered in several progressive initiatives that are changing his city. In January 2011, Newsweek named South Bend second on its then list of America’s Dying Cities. Six years later, Governing featured South Bend as “a compelling case study of a mid-sized city’s ability to pivot to take advantage of new technology, both internally and externally,” such as the city’s work with Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities.

As mayor, Buttigieg has leveraged:

“South Bend appears to again be hitting on all cylinders,” concluded Governing author Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program.

This combination of putting a fresh face on a party with skill that achieves real progress for cities and their residents has achieved election to DNC chair before. From 1999 through 2001, former Philadelphia Mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell co-chaired the DNC with Joseph Andrew of Indiana. Andrew was one of the youngest DNC chairs in the DNC’s history and Rendell was once credited by the New York Times for one of the most stunning turnarounds in urban history.

Watch the Jan. 8, 2017, DNC Debate:

Andrea Fox is Editor of Gov1.com and Senior Editor at Lexipol. She is based in Massachusetts.