Race for South Bend mayor is lively

By Jack Colwell

South Bend Tribune

March 6, 2011

Who would want to be mayor of a "dying" city? Well, eight candidates filed for mayor of South Bend, described as a "dying" city by Newsweek, a magazine so thin in content, advertising and circulation that it is regarded in the publishing world as "dying."

Newsweek's strange way of forecasting municipal demise puts South Bend on its death-watch list with Pittsburgh, named by Forbes as the country's "most livable city," and New Orleans, alive and lively in brave recovery from Katrina and FEMA.

The South Bend candidates don't regard the office they seek as funeral director for a "dying" city.

That doesn't mean South Bend is thriving. Population declined, a key ingredient in the Newsweek death formula. So of course has population declined in many Midwest cities with a legacy of reliance on the automotive industry and other "Rust Belt" manufacturing.

But ready to drop dead?Not while the University of Notre Dame is here. Not with all that means in employment, spending by visitors, quality of life and technology and innovation for jobs of the future. Notre Dame isn't leaving.

Nor really are all those people leaving. Many have moved to suburbs. St. Joseph County gained a little in population.

Among those who want to be mayor are three Democrats now regarded as the main contenders, all with credentials of one type or another to attract substantial early support.

They are, in alphabetical order:

Pete Buttigieg, 29-year-old former Rhodes Scholar who already has private enterprise experience in economic development, even overseas. Buttigieg (pronounced "Boota-judge") impressed party leaders as the Democratic nominee for state treasurer last year, defending efforts to save the American auto industry and jobs in Indiana. He had no chance, however, in running statewide without name recognition in a huge Republican year.

State Rep. Ryan Dvorak, who has a reputation as an able state legislator. He won re-election last year, as did Prosecutor Mike Dvorak, his father. He clearly has the highest name recognition. Dvorak's participation with quorum-breaking by House Democrats no doubt helps with labor and teachers, important groups in the Democratic primary. Being stuck in Urbana, Ill., halted local campaigning but didn't prevent news media interviews.

County Councilman Mike Hamann, who has the most experience in local government as county commissioner and now county councilman. While a Republican back when he was a commissioner, Hamann was known then for working with Democratic county officials in a bipartisan way. He established party credentials with involvement in Democratic campaign efforts. Hamann, first to organize, hopes for precinct committee support.

St. Joseph County Democratic Party Chairman Owen D. "Butch" Morgan says the party's central committee "will be Switzerland," strictly neutral.

 There were two other filings for the Democratic nomination and three for the Republican nomination. Right now it appears that one of the main three contenders for the Democratic nomination will be the next mayor.

No Republican has been elected mayor of South Bend since 1967. No Republican nominee has made it even a close race since 1987.In an ironic twist, Republican chances of a serious challenge diminished when Mayor Steve Luecke, a Democrat who has served longer than any other mayor in city history, declined to seek re-election.

Rightly or wrongly, critics of the mayor's economic development efforts might well have given substantial support to some impressive Republican contender challenging Luecke.

With Luecke not there as a target, Republicans failed to find an impressive contender. Instead of Democrats crossing over to vote for a Luecke challenger, it could be Republicans crossing over in the primary to vote for one of the top Democratic contenders and then likely supporting the Democratic nominee this fall.

There was thought that Republicans might seek to have no primary candidate in order later to appoint a strong challenger if Democrats were split after their primary battles.

If there was that playing-with-fire strategy, it didn't work. Two quite unusual people filed for the Republican mayoral nomination, and the GOP did at the last minute find one more suitable choice in seeking to avoid, as has happened in the past, having a nominee come across as unthinkable.There will be a new mayor, not of a "dying" city but of a city still with problems from being thought of as Studebaker, Ind.