Stepping Into Presidential Politics

Author: Mike Schmuhl ’05

Buttigiegbuttons Pete Marovich/The New York Times/Redux

One day in May 2019, I found myself with a microphone in my hand on a tour bus circling South Bend.

On the right is the Oliver Mansion, also known as Copshaholm. The Oliver company made chilled plows. Does anyone know what a chilled plow is? . . .

That’s the home of the South Bend Cubs. When I was a kid, they were the South Bend White Sox. It’s a long story. . . .

We’re going over the East Race now, the first man-made whitewater course constructed in the country. . . .

Did you know that Pete Buttigieg isn’t the youngest mayor in city history? . . .

After two tours, the bus driver gave me his card: “You sure know a lot of stuff about the area and we could use someone like you.”

The tours were part of the first team retreat for the Pete for America presidential campaign. By then, about a month after Buttigieg’s official entry into the race, we had almost 70 people, many of whom had never even been to Indiana before. The night ended along the river with dinner at The Armory, an archetype of this resilient city: something old made new again with purpose.

After graduate school and jobs in Chicago and New York,    I had moved home at the end of 2018 to help the mayor with whatever was on the horizon. We’d met in 1997 when he gave me a tour of St. Joseph High School. I was an eighth grader. He was a freshman. Our fathers both taught at Notre Dame, and we were both politically inclined only children. We had stayed in touch over the years and, after working for then-Congressman Joe Donnelly ’77, ’81J.D., I’d gone to work for Buttigieg on his mayoral campaign and in city government.

Soon more people across America were wondering: Who is this ‘Mayor Pete’? Can the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city actually become president?

We didn’t have a grand plan on how he would run for president, but the contours were there. We would launch an exploratory committee early and create a steady drumbeat of big moments, hoping that one would launch him to the next level. If things never took off or we ran out of money, we’d know pretty quickly and close things up.

That’s not what happened.

Our shop was set up in the Gothic and slim Tower Building on West Washington Street downtown, just around the corner from Buttigieg’s mayoral office. It was unlisted in the lobby, unmarked on the eighth floor and painted exclusively yellow. It had a very Dick Tracy vibe. Our internet service was spotty, so we purchased some Wi-Fi hotspots to keep things humming. The office had a tiny staff and three dedicated Notre Dame student interns.

Over time, we graduated to larger offices. The campaign took two suites on the third floor of the Jefferson Centre building, above Chicory Café. In those early days some aspiring campaign workers were moving to South Bend hoping to secure jobs. Petitioners would camp out in the coffee shop and inquire about their applications. Then, in the summer of 2019, we would move to our final home in the KeyBank building, just across the Century Center parking lot from the Jefferson Boulevard Bridge, the one with the arch that inspired our campaign logo.

By that time, we were a formidable presidential campaign, punching above our weight. Our exploratory launch in January 2019 had gone well, and Buttigieg’s February book tour garnered overflow crowds in more than a dozen cities. After his master class that March on a CNN national town hall from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, we knew things were changing.

Soon more people across America were wondering: Who is this “Mayor Pete”? Can the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city actually become president?

From the belly of the cold, old Studebaker automobile assembly plant, water dripping from the rafters, Buttigieg made his presidential aspirations official on April 14, 2019. He told the thousands gathered, “If you and I rise together to meet this moment, one day they will write histories, not just about one campaign or one presidency but about the era that began here today in this building where past, present and future meet, right here this chilly day in South Bend.”

It was the largest gathering inside the Studebaker plant since it ceased operations in December 1963. We received permission to use “Up Around the Bend” by Creedence Clearwater Revival after I emailed frontman John Fogerty’s brother. They agreed in part because Fogerty’s wife had lived in . . . South Bend. The jam was played at all of our events across the country as Buttigieg’s walk-off song, a not-so-subtle nod to our hometown:

Come on the risin’ wind

We’re goin’ up around the bend

As Buttigieg worked the rope line with more than 100 credentialed reporters looking on, I knew we would need to scale up swiftly. I was concerned about attracting top-flight political talent. Many applicants had worked on either coast and probably hadn’t much experience along “the third coast.”

At first, some staff members could choose to work in Chicago or South Bend. Many of the political and communications staffers gravitated to the Windy City, but I was heartened that dozens wanted to come to the capital of Michiana. Eventually, we consolidated operations and the Chicago team moved 100 miles east to the South Bend headquarters.

A small ecosystem formed. Chicory had a steady line of staffers getting coffee and snacks. Across Michigan Street, PEGGS owner and friend Peg Dalton started selling “PEGGS FOR PETE” merchandise as she became well-connected with national journalists who were using her restaurant to interview Buttigieg or grab a bite to eat.

Down the block, Linden Grill hosted events with local supporters. Over on the East Bank, Corby’s — normally reserved “For the 5th Quarter” — became a go-to for happy hours. Proprietor Joe Mittiga reminded me once to give him a heads-up whenever 150 people would be dropping by.

The influx of campaign staffers also filled many South Bend apartments, including vintage downtown spots like Stephenson Mill and Central High — and its unbelievable “Pool” apartment. Many options that didn’t exist a few years ago became popular: The Hibberd, Studebaker Lofts, The Ivy at Berlin Place and The LaSalle Apartments.

South Bend has changed a lot in the past decade. Friends and acquaintances who only return every few years always extol what’s new since their last visit. For people who live here, even as we acknowledge our hometown’s imperfections, the sense of civic renewal is real. With a rejuvenated parks system, development along the river, reduced structural blight in our neighborhoods, three hotels downtown and a more accommodating traffic plan, the city has been making moves.

Not that the national media always told the stories of progress. Reporters often seemed to come to South Bend with a preconceived idea of what they would find. As frequently as we introduced them to residents or business owners who were excited about the city’s trajectory, reporters seemed to stumble into longtime political opponents. Over the course of the campaign, the squeaky wheels got a lot of ink.

Much of this tension could be sourced to Buttigieg’s warp-speed rise. As the mayor of a city of just over 100,000 people, he was making the case to the American people that he should move straight from the County-City Building to the Oval Office. That put South Bend under a magnifying glass. Supporters, opponents and the media alike scoured for information. The city processed over 3,500 public-records requests in Buttigieg’s final year as mayor.

At its peak, Pete for America had over 575 staff members — 165 of them working in the South Bend headquarters. In the early primary states, we opened over 70 offices. The campaign raised about $100 million in a little over a year. And community leaders like Gladys Muhammad and South Bend Common Council member Sharon McBride became emissaries of the city on the national stage, campaigning alongside Buttigieg in South Carolina and Nevada.

I’d like to think we became a political version of Rudy or Hoosiers — underdogs training tough, competing hard, surprising the crowds, winning respect for the way we played the game, whatever the odds.

It was the ride of a lifetime, including a victory in the Iowa caucuses, but it wasn’t meant to be. Buttigieg dropped out after the South Carolina primary with a March 1 speech in Century Center’s Great Hall, where he had been sworn in as mayor. Even as he conceded, he got a warm welcome in his hometown, which seemed to be shining a little brighter after his two terms and its time in the national spotlight of a presidential campaign.

South Bend was on the proverbial map even before its incorporation in 1865. It’s been known as the home of Schuyler Colfax Jr. (vice president under Ulysses S. Grant and father of Schuyler III, the youngest mayor in the city’s history), those Oliver chilled plows, Studebakers and, of course, the Fighting Irish. It was thrilling to be part of a fresh chapter in the city’s story and to help the nation see how South Bend’s history shapes its vision for the future.

I think I’ll keep giving tours.

Mike Schmuhl was national campaign manager for Pete for America. A self-employed consultant, he lives in South Bend.