Despite a pledge to make diversity among his senior staff a central component of his South Bend, Indiana, mayoralty, Pete Buttigieg has instead surrounded himself with white senior officials in a city that is roughly half nonwhite.
After winning reelection to a second term in 2015, Buttigieg told a local news station his office would continue to prioritize diversity in its hiring and decision-making processes. “Research shows that any organization — government, business, you name it — performs better when it’s got diverse makeup and diverse leadership. This is a community that one of our strengths is the diversity of the residents who make this community up. The same needs to be true of our city administration.”
Buttigieg touted diversity in his city administration in response to a question from a reporter at an NAACP forum in July about how he planned to construct his presidential cabinet given that his top campaign staff didn’t “reflect the diversity of America.” Buttigieg said his mayoral office had appointed “people who reflect our community,” and that doing so led to “better representation” and “better decisions.”
But of nine South Bend city departments heads, including city controller, public works director, and police and fire chiefs, six are white, while one is black. And only two of Buttigieg’s six executive staff members in South Bend are nonwhite, an executive assistant and administrative assistant.
As Buttigieg has risen in polls in some early primary states, he’s facing increasing scrutiny of his poor showing among black and Latino voters in others, namely South Carolina and Nevada. He has also faced criticism for his rocky relationship with the black community in South Bend, where he’s been mayor for almost eight years. Buttigieg has said his decision to fire, and later demote, the former black police chief, amid a scandal involving recordings of other officers allegedly making racist comments against him, was his “first serious mistake” as mayor. The incident, Buttigieg has admitted, caused significant damage to his relationship with black residents.
South Bend’s city departments include the legal department, the police and fire departments, the city finance office, and the offices of community investment, code enforcement, innovation, public works, and venues parks and arts. Of those department leaders, all but the city’s corporation counsel, the chief innovation officer, and the interim director of community investment are white. Until earlier this year, a black woman directed the mayor’s community outreach efforts.
The two members of color in the mayor’s office, on executive staff, are in administrative positions: one is the mayor’s scheduler and executive assistant, and another is an administrative assistant. The administrative assistant, who has worked for the city since 1998, is the only black member of the mayor’s executive staff and was given an award during the city’s second annual Black History Month ceremony in 2017.
The city’s office of diversity and inclusion, which Buttigieg created in 2016, was led by a black woman until she departed for another job earlier this month.
A July 2017 column in the South Bend Tribune by local resident and former city council candidate Ricky Klee called the mayor’s administration “a force for inequality,” saying that the mayor’s hires “greatly decreased the presence of African-American and Hispanic leaders in city government” from 18 to 12 percent among the city’s highest-paid officials. The article notes that Buttigieg didn’t appoint black or Hispanic officials to many of the city’s boards, and that such statistics “were omitted by the mayor’s 2016 report on diversity and inclusion.” Buttigieg later authored a rebuttal disputing the numbers Klee used to make his point.
The mayor said if elected president, he would make his cabinet at least 50 percent women, and he’s released a plan that outlines how he would address barriers women face in the workplace, in pay disparity, and in access to health care. The plan aims to create a “ripple effect” in improving diversity in Buttigieg’s potential cabinet by requiring candidates to submit information on demographics at their current organizations, and to explain their efforts to date to increase gender and racial diversity in their current workplaces. In South Bend, five of his six city cabinet members are women.
The mayor’s allies in recent weeks have taken steps to prove that Buttigieg can attract support from black voters. A South Bend community center held an event gathering black leaders to counter the national narrative that the mayor is failing to pick up the black support he would need to secure the Democratic nomination. The campaign told the Indy Star they did not organize the event, and a council member said it wasn’t meant as an endorsement. But the campaign did send out a news release announcing the event, and several staffers attended, though Buttigieg did not.
South Bend Common Council members and community leaders led the event, which was interrupted by activists from Black Lives Matter South Bend who raised long-standing concerns regarding the city’s policing and lack of affordable housing.
The mayor’s office said that the mayor “has showcased a commitment to diversity and inclusion over the past eight years, making it a priority to address racial inequities,” pointing to his creation of the office of diversity and inclusion, commissioning a study on the city’s racial wealth gap, and contracting with women- and minority-owned firms. His presidential campaign declined to comment.
The mayor’s pledge to diversify his presidential cabinet is part of an effort to head off criticisms about his handling of race relations as mayor: The campaign rolled out its ambitious “Douglass Plan” this summer outlining how his administration would tackle systemic racism. The campaign touted support for the plan from several prominent black leaders who hadn’t actually endorsed the mayor — or even the plan.
Update: Dec. 17, 2019, 5:50 p.m. ET
This article has been updated to note that Pete Buttigieg disputed Ricky Klee’s 2017 critiques of diversity in his administration.