Mayor Pete understands rural Iowa, but South Bend may consume him



Don’t count South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg among those willing to overlook the Midwest. Barack Obama won Iowa, Indiana and Ohio, and Buttigieg thinks he can do the same to become America’s first openly gay President.

The 37-year-old Afghanistan War veteran sat down for a 40-minute interview with The Storm Lake Times on the Fourth of July, before the Big Parade, and raced out to join an NBC News live interview from Chautauqua Park before the fire trucks sounded.

South Bend isn’t so different than Sioux City or the Quad Cities — an old manufacturing town dealt a gut punch over the past half-century trying to recover. It is Janesville and Kenosha. It is Youngstown and Scranton. It is even West Bend, Iowa, another place that time and political power largely forgot. The coastal-centric media is trying to figure us out.

“It’s like we’re some exotic species out here,” Buttigieg remarked.

He hopes a rural-rust belt message can resonate as the nation is at the end of a half-century economic and political epoch that started with the conservative revolution of Goldwater and Reagan suggests a major turn. He believes it can be seen clearly in agriculture and rural America, losing money on moribund export markets and giving up its natural resource base in the name of higher corn yields.

Mayor Pete says climate change is the top issue, and that agriculture can lead the way to a solution.

“My message is: We need you,” Buttigieg said. “We have a problem to solve, and rural America could be a huge part of the climate solution.”

He offered a fact: The carbon output of the entire global transportation system can be offset by soil capture with better land management.

Buttigieg understands the promise of sustainable, or regenerative agriculture, and he fully appreciates how climate and trade policies have hammered the Midwest. Farmers should be paid for environmental stewardship, he says, and we should massively ramp up research and deployment of soil- and water-saving practices as land uses rapidly change amid extreme weather.

“Food security is worth the investment,” he says. “We don’t have it all framed up yet, but we have to commit major resources.”

He also understands how important immigrants are to hard-pressed places. Like Storm Lake, South Bend has grown in population only because of immigrants. He is the son of an immigrant from Malta.

“The President says we are full. We’re not full. We have enough pipes and fire stations in South Bend for another 30,000 people. Detroit is not full. And neither are rural communities. Yet immigrants remain under attack.

“The truth is, if the President wanted to he could bring about the change these places need. But he is making it a crisis. If we don’t solve these rural problems, well, a country just can’t go on that divides itself like this.”

He is smart, a Rhodes scholar. He is young, at 37. He is raising lots of money and is somewhere in the top tier of candidates in Iowa. He understands the state’s politics. He was steadily rising, and then one of his police officers shot and killed a black man who reportedly was approaching, or charging, the officer with a knife. All the details are not known. But it blew up in his face, with the victim’s mother shaming Mayor Pete on national TV.

He said that his answer to the shooting during the debates — that the buck stops with him and he failed — is “not good enough.”

“It’s anguishing because it goes so much deeper,” Buttigieg said.

South Bend is an exurb of Chicago. The same police and race problems that plague the Windy City permeate Gary, Elkhart and South Bend. Buttigieg says he is trying.

“But we’re not there yet. America is not there yet,” Buttigieg said.

At that his staff had to end it in time to make the parade. No doubt he hopes Iowa will show enough patience that a voice for the future can survive the early winnowing process. A lot will happen in South Bend in the meantime. How he manages it will help determine whether he has what it takes for America to turn that corner that any Iowan should see is upon us. Mayor Pete does understand what is going on in the Midwest better than most other candidates, but its circumstances might consume him.

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