If not Mayor Luecke, then who?

By Jack Colwell, South Bend Tribune Columnist

December 5, 2010

SOUTH BEND - As that astute baseball philosopher Yogi Berra might say, it's not official 'til it's official.

So, it's not official yet that South Bend Mayor Steve Luecke, longest serving mayor in the city's history, won't run next year for another term.

Only Luecke can make the official announcement. He has told political friends that the announcement likely will come soon.

Three potentially strong Democratic candidates already are looking at the mayoral nomination race, to be decided in the primary next May. But they are withholding any announcement of candidacy until Luecke makes it official that there will be a new mayor elected in 2011.

Those potential candidates are:Peter Buttigieg, the young Rhodes Scholar who was the Democratic nominee for state treasurer in the Nov. 2 election, impressing party leaders with his campaign effort but losing in the Republican statewide tide.

State Rep. Ryan Dvorak, who won re-election, as did his father, Prosecutor Mike Dvorak, as that well-known last name continued to bring voter support.

County Councilman Mike Hamann, who won a full term in the council district in which he had filled a vacancy. He is a former county commissioner, elected then as a Republican but always working with Democrats in a bipartisan way.

Whether any would run if Luecke changed his mind about likely stepping aside is uncertain. Although there is a lot of grumbling about Luecke, as would be inevitable for a mayor so long in office -- since the end of 1996, when he filled the mayoral vacancy created by Joe Kernan's election as lieutenant governor -- he has won three full terms since then, all impressively.

Buttigieg already has filed papers for a mayoral committee, "Pete for South Bend." Names on the filing show he is organizing for a serious bid.The committee chairman is Bob Urbanski, long a prominent figure in Democratic fundraising and campaign organizing.

The committee treasurer is Mike Schmuhl, who was campaign chairman for Congressman Joe Donnelly's successful re-election campaign. Buttigieg and Schmuhl were friends as students at St. Joseph's High School, as their fathers have been as Notre Dame professors.

Buttigieg (pronounced Boota-judge) wasn't helped in his statewide campaign by a last name that wasn't exactly familiar to the voters, but he could quickly overcome any problem with that in a city campaign. He would stress his business background in an appeal for business revival in South Bend.

Hamann has been encouraged to run by St. Joseph County Democratic Chairman Owen D. "Butch" Morgan. While Morgan has detractors, they are mostly those who opposed his organization choices and lost.

Party organizations no longer have the power of past eras, but Morgan has the support of a lot of precinct committeemen, most of whom he appointed. If Morgan decided to go all-out to support Hamann, that would be a key factor.Hamann has administrative experience as a county commissioner. He was respected for making governmental decisions without partisan political motives.

Some Democratic primary voters might hold it against Hamann that he was then a Republican, but he broke with the GOP over the controversial activities of former Prosecutor Chris Toth, a Republican that Hamann helped defeat through open support of Mike Dvorak for prosecutor.

Rep. Dvorak long has been regarded as a Democrat who could move on from the Indiana House to higher office, perhaps Congress some day. He is looking at the possibility of moving now to mayor.

Having a familiar last name would be helpful. So would his reputation as a solid state legislator. But being in the legislature, with the long budget-writing session beginning in January, could hinder Dvorak's ability to campaign in South Bend for the mayoral primary. He could do it, but with constant travel to and from Indianapolis on U.S. 31.

The winner of the Democratic primary almost certainly will be elected as mayor next fall.City Councilman David Varner, lone Republican on the council, says the way Donnelly swept to victory throughout South Bend, despite a Republican hurricane hitting the state on Nov. 2, shows there is little GOP hope for a 2011 mayoral victory.

No Republican has been elected mayor since the victories of Lloyd M. Allen in 1963 and 1967.

Jack Colwell is a columnist for The Tribune. Write to him in care of The Tribune or by e-mail at jcolwell@comcast.net.