Thanks, Politico. You really know how to make a girl feel special.
That’s how I felt after I read “The President of Nowhere, USA,” a recent profile about the breakout star of—and from—South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Don’t get me wrong: Clickbait title aside, the piece excellently details “Mayor Pete’s” meteoric rise and the power of his humble approach. On top of that, it does an admirable job of discussing why the fact that a progressive, gay mayor’s return home after graduating from Harvard and doing a stint at McKinsey defies people’s stale impressions of Indiana. The piece also captures the challenge South Bend faces in honoring its roots without stagnating against tricky Rust Belt odds.
But, at least for me, where this piece—as well as many others—trips up is in its laser-like focus Buttigieg’s pathway to national prominence. The frame of the piece is, essentially, that local politicians need to be assessed according to their potential for national office. I’m interested in the subtext of this line of thinking: that local leaders’ value lies inherently in their viability for national office, and that there are “real Americans” out there we can only hope to understand.
First, let’s talk about the issue of defining mayors and community organizers according to their national fame quotient. Buttigieg has changed as many lives during his seven-year term as any member of Congress has for that same constituency; just ask the residents who went back to work after he cut the Newsweek-dubbed failing city’s unemployment by half. And I can say, from my own experiences in Indiana, that this outsized impact isn’t limited to Buttigieg. In Indianapolis, Mayor Joe Hogsett and faith, workforce, and education leaders have announced the second summer of Project Indy, a summer youth employment program focused on building workforce-relevant skills for the city’s most vulnerable students. Hogsett’s administration is also working with Governor Eric Holcomb to offer incentives to employers for hiring ex-offenders, building on local efforts to help the formerly incarcerated become successful entrepreneurs.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, meanwhile, is fighting to recover resources used to address the opioid crisis from drug manufacturers themselves. And consider the leadership of former Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard: He’s both growing robotics and tech education in the city, and helping to lead the bipartisan, cross-sector pushback against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Ballard’s willingness to innovate across social and economic priorities, to ensure that the city workforce is accessible and welcoming to more Hoosiers, set the bar high for local leadership, often walking the tightrope between local need and national movements.
Each of these mayors, Democrats and Republicans alike, is deftly working across various landscapes—the state government, nonprofits, diverse faith communities, the private sector—to make the most of sometimes brief stints in office. At a time when federal decision-making is chaotic, being able to take action swiftly on the local level (and iterate as you learn) is crucial. And it’s about to become even more important in the face of an infrastructure plan that will place additional financial and leadership demands on local governments.
Yes, some Indiana mayors may have traits or priorities that, once you’re talking about legislation or courts, might challenge single-issue voters on both sides of the aisle. And, true, that might make them harder sells for certain state and national seats. But when did that become the metric for valuable public service? Why is doing good work and making effective policy in cities and towns—where people live and work each day—not enough? Why do we so often breeze past local leaders’ value and head straight for the beauty pageant of a national race? Why do we make these leaders’ accomplishments about whether or not mysterious “real Americans” would let them achieve something on the national stage? And why do we assume that key city innovations aren’t a good selling point for a public servant on the state or national level?
Finding places with “real Americans” aligns someone’s efficacy and opportunity to rise in the ranks of public service with their voter registration card. It also entirely overlooks Indiana’s tradition of pragmatic policymaking: Hoosiers have always struck me as being interested in practicality and privacy, and you can sometimes see that tradition in bi- or nonpartisan partnerships to address daily challenges. Bipartisan solutions are possible here. They’re valued. In the minds of many people, if you’ve managed to become a successful Democrat in South Bend or a successful Republican in Indianapolis, you’re a blessed fluke that might want to sit still in national office rather than chance being chased by torch-wielding local villagers.
Indiana isn’t known for being progressive on social issues. That’s painfully true. But for those people who find it convenient to cordon off Indiana, or the Midwest more broadly, because it trends red outside of Indianapolis and Gary, I suggest this: When it comes to racial, gender, and sexual identity, the “real American” narrative is unproductive and insulting at best, and often downright dangerous at worst. Consider the Great Migration and the growth of black communities in the Midwest that followed: Can you imagine being a person of color in Indiana and hearing that “everyone is white out there,” as something that factors into political strategy or resource allocation? Should your geography dictate how hard someone ought to work address issues that matter to you? The Midwest has miles to go if it wants to address equity and safety for black Americans, and attitudes about marriage equality may vary by zip code, but papering over Midwesterners of color, LGBTQ Midwesterners, or Muslim Midwesterners is no better than denying the issues plaguing the factory worker in a rural community grappling with the changes that ran roughshod through her hometown.
If we don’t add more nuance to our discussions of the needs of Americans in urban and rural areas outside of, say, the 10 largest cities (Indianapolis is No. 15 by most counts), we miss out on the innovative policies and processes coming out of those markets. Suggesting that there’s some forcefield preventing effective leaders like Buttigieg from “getting out” robs countless other Americans the opportunity to learn from what has worked—even out here in Nowhere, USA.