Pete Buttigieg and Henry Davis Jr. square off in South Bend mayor's race
Dem mayoral candidates develop their own vision for South Bend
By Erin Blasko, The South Bend Tribune
April 19, 2015
SOUTH BEND -- Is South Bend in peril or on the mend?
How voters answer that question is likely to determine the outcome of the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor between incumbent Pete Buttigieg and challenger Henry Davis Jr.
The winner will face Kelly Jones, the only Republican candidate, in the general election.
A South Bend native, Buttigieg has spent much of his first term charting a course for recovery for the city after years of decline linked to shifts in the broader economic landscape and the recent recession.
In speeches and public comments, he points to a declining unemployment rate -- down 4.5 points since he took office 2012 -- fewer vacant and abandoned houses, new development downtown and lower levels of crime as reasons for optimism.
Also: ongoing infrastructure improvements related to the "Smart Streets" program and recent economic development announcements linked to $180 million in new investment and as many as 1,400 new jobs.
As part of the Smart Streets effort, the Common Council recently approved a $25 million bond to convert Main and Michigan streets from one-way to two-way and improve Lincoln Way West and Western Avenue --something Davis opposed as misplaced priority.
Buttigieg also points to efforts to make local government more user-friendly.
He has introduced a 311 customer service line, he notes, simplified the tax abatement process, created an online open data portal and established a single point of contact in the Department of Community Investment.
He has also pushed for parks improvements, he notes, via a $5.6 million parks bond approved by the Common Council in January.
As with the Smart Streets bond, Davis opposed the parks bond. He questioned the size of the bond and expressed concern that the proceeds had not been earmarked for specific projects.
If re-elected to a second term, Buttigieg said he would work to improve public transportation, which can be a barrier to employment, and establish universal prekindergarten education in the city.
He would also look for ways to reduce the cost of an ongoing, federally mandated $600 million sewer project.
"The bottom line is, I think I can say with confidence that South Bend is better off than it was three years ago," the Harvard University and University of Oxford alum said in a recent interview.
Davis, by contrast, describes the city as in peril, saddled by unsustainable debt despite a strong AA credit rating and suffering under what he calls corrupt, incompetent leadership.
He describes the mayor's policies as inadequate in addressing the problems of crime, poverty, unemployment and inequality in the community.
On poverty, the Earlham College alum points to the fact that 30 percent of the city's residents live at or below the poverty line, while 74 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
He also accuses the mayor of steering no-bid city contracts to political friends and donors and of violating basic principles of transparency in matters such as the controversial wiretapping of police department phones.
As evidence of the former, he points to the list of donors to the mayor's campaign, which includes a number of contractors that do business with the city.
Those companies also contribute to many other campaigns, both Republican and Democrat.
"Have you seen his campaign expense report?" Davis asked a reporter. "That's why he does it. That's how you get $300,000 for a municipal race."
Buttigieg has referred to such accusations as patently false.
Davis, for his part, said he also would accept contributions from contractors, but that he would not let those contributions influence the process.
Davis also opposes the Smart Streets Program and the Vacant and Abandoned Housing Initiative, which has led to the repair or removal of more than 800 houses since 2013.
He describes the former as wasteful and ill-conceived and the latter as destructive to the extent it focuses too much on removal and not enough on repair.
"You're talking about tearing down homes as the answer to redevelopment," he scoffed.
"The main reason we're doing this is because the neighbors have been demanding it," Buttigieg countered. "When a house that is beyond repair stands there for years, it harms the people that live nearby."
Davis also accuses the mayor of misrepresenting crime data in an attempt to downplay the problem, referring to claims crime in the city is at a 20-year low as "ridiculous" in light of a severe uptick in homicides last year.
He said he would focus on community policing and minority recruitment as ways to address crime. He would also establish police substations in high-crime neighborhoods, he said.
As for downtown, he describes it as "failing."
"You hear about how great downtown is doing, downtown is not doing great at all. As a matter of fact downtown is failing," he said. "It's gone, it's zero, it's empty. The lights are turned off."
He also questions the mayor's contention that the city contributed to the creation of more than 1,400 jobs last year.
"The truth is the actual job gain here is probably less than 100," he said, noting not all of the jobs touted have come online yet and that the numbers do not include concurrent job losses.
Overall, the city has added more than 3,600 jobs since January 2012, according to the state Department of Workforce Development. At the same time, labor force participation has ticked up 5 percent.
Davis points to his work to prevent illegal parking and dumping in the city, slow the demolition of vacant and abandoned houses, and save occupied homes along Fellows Street from demolition as part of a street-widening project.
As for why he's running, "We need to restore justice and fairness in the city of South Bend," Davis said.
But Davis has his own issues to contend with.
A lightning rod for controversy, he spent much of 2014 on the defensive after posting an obscene photo of a man and a dog to his Facebook page and sharing an objectionable tweet about Republicans and abortion.
He was also arrested and booked on multiple counts of operating while intoxicated and reckless driving in July, when he was stopped for driving the wrong way on the U.S. 20 Bypass.
That arrest, which he later blamed on an adverse reaction to a new multiple sclerosis medication, led to a reckless driving conviction, probation and substance abuse education.
Davis is also the subject of a lawsuit that accuses him of libeling four police officers in a letter to the Department of Justice in May 2014 related to the police tapes controversy.
He refused to address or even acknowledge those issues in a recent interview. Previously, however, he has blamed the media for the problem.
"Don't' believe what the media says," he told WNIT's "Politically Speaking" recently. "Yes, I've had less than desirable decisions that have happened ... but at the level some of these things have been taken to, I question the truthfulness about all of it."
Buttigieg has also faced criticism over past decisions
Notably, critics have questioned his handling of the police tapes controversy, which has divided the community and cost taxpayers more than $1 million in legal and settlement fees.
The problem, which dates to the previous administration, involves accusations of racism and criminal activity related to conversations recorded on a police department telephone line over a period of several months in 2010 and 2011.
As a member of the Common Council, Davis voted to subpoena the city for access to the recordings. The now 3-year-old case is currently making its way through the state and federal court systems.
Buttigieg is not opposed to the release of the tapes, but wants the courts to decide what can and cannot be released in order to avoid potential invasion of privacy issues and further litigation at taxpayer expense.
Davis, by contrast, would immediately release at least some of the material, he said, based on a recent federal court ruling.
"The city deserves to hear what's going on on those tapes," he said.
Critics also accuse the mayor of being insufficiently transparent in certain matters, including personnel matters.
Buttigieg defends his record, noting the city has handled more than 6,000 public records requests in three-plus years with no violations.
"I would stack our record on transparency up against anybody in this area or anywhere else," he said, "because it's something that we not only talk about but strongly believe makes this city a better place to live."