SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Suddenly, the man to beat in the crowded field of Democrats running for president is Pete Buttigieg. The millennial and openly-gay candidate is impressing the nation as he polls double digits ahead of the rest of the field in Iowa and is in third place in New Hampshire. While he is credited with making some progress as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, his critics say he remains inexperienced, and it’s not enough to qualify him to become the leader of the free world.
Fox News traveled to the midwest rust belt city for a Buttigieg leadership series broadcast on Fox News’ "Special Report" to find out how South Bend residents feel about Mayor Pete.
Jody Freid, who spent most of her life in South Bend told Fox News, "I have seen South Bend grow. When you travel around the United States and the world and you mention South Bend, Indiana no one ever heard of South Bend until you mention [University of] Notre Dame. Now they know about South Bend and they mention Mayor Pete. She added, "He’s very thoughtful, he’s very controlled, he’s just amazing human being."
Ebony Poindexter, another resident of South Bend, was not equally as impressed with Buttigieg's leadership, telling Fox News, "Before he was mayor. South Bend was a better place to be."
Asked why Buttigieg is having a hard time getting support from the African American community, she said, "There’s no communication with the minorities,".adding "you’ll see him out in the Mishawaka area or Notre Dame area but he doesn’t come out to the black communities and try to find out what’s going on."
What Buttigieg might lack at 37-years-old, is the kind of experience he was surrounded by on the Democrat debate stage Nov. 20th in Atlanta.
In fiery exchanges with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Hawaiian Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Buttigieg defended his lack of Washington D.C. experience: "Washington experience is not the only experience that matters. There's more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?"
Buttigieg often emphasizes his time as a naval intelligence officer deployed to Afghanistan and his experience as a decision-maker in the mayor's office.
Indiana Republicans see a candidate who has maxed his potential in a red state pointing out that the only time Buttigieg ran statewide was for treasurer in 2010 and he was clobbered.
"It doesn't take much after running statewide and losing by 25 points to realize that if you have a political future, it's probably not in Indiana," Kyle Hupfer, the president of the Indiana GOP, told Fox News.
Democrat resident Henry Davis Jr. lost to Buttigieg in the primary in the mayoral campaign of 2015. He says Buttigieg's time in the mayor's office was needed to fill out an ambitious politician’s resume.
"He has always looked to South Bend as a stepping stone, an internship perhaps," Davis said.
With all his strengths as a rising star in the crowded field of Democrats competing for the nomination, a glaring weakness for Buttigieg is support from African-Americans. As mayor, Buttigieg’s trouble started early in his first term when he stumbled upon complicated race relations, angering police and African-Americans at the same time.
Following an alleged phone-tapping scandal, Buttigieg fired the city’s first African-American police chief, Daryl Boykins, and replaced him with a white chief. In his memoir, Shortest Way Home, the mayor wrote that the tapes case “affected my relationship with the African American community in particular for years to come.”
Now, in his race for the presidency, a recent poll found him at 0 percent support amongst black South Carolina Democrats.
Buttigieg’s mayoral opponent Davis told Fox News, “I don’t think he cares to connect with African American voters. His record here in South Bend is abysmal as it relates to African American affairs.”
In 2016, Buttigieg hired the city’s first Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Christina Brooks. She has heard the criticism, and says there’s no quick fix. “When you build authentic relationships it takes time. And he's you know 37 years old and he's not afraid to say that there are things that he's still learning.”
Brooks doesn’t see that has a bad thing. “But as he learns them he masters them,” she adds. “And I think that's one thing that we can look for forward to in leadership from him.”
In June, Buttigieg took a break from the campaign trail to try to calm protests back home after a white police officer, Ryan O’Neill, shot and killed Eric Logan, a black man who the police say refused orders to drop a knife.
What Buttigieg has mastered is fundraising. His campaign has drummed up more than 50-million dollars and has 23-million ready to spend. Only Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have raised more money or have more on hand. And Michael Bloomberg promises to spend 30-million on ads.
"There is political skill involved. He really has invested heavily in volunteers and headquarters in these early primary and caucus states," said Elizabeth Bennion, a professor of political science at Indiana University South Bend.
Several times, Bennion referred to the term symbolic politics when discussing Buttigieg as a presidential candidate.
"Symbolic politics have less to do with the specific policies people pass, and more to do with what they represent," said Bennion. "As a young candidate and a millennial--as somebody who has created a sense of optimism and moving forward for many people in the city of South Bend--that seems to be what he represents to a lot of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire right now. A fresh start. And that symbolic politics matters a lot in a head of state."
The announcement of his presidential bid from the old Studebaker plant was overtly symbolic too--as the Buttigieg team boasts the return of some 12-thousand jobs.
Jeff Rea, the president and CEO of the South Bend Regional, says a slow recovery was already underway when Buttigieg was elected.
"Pete came in and really put his foot on the gas pedal and accelerated those improvements to happen," he said.
South Bend tells a tale of two cities under Buttigieg. The neighborhoods that suffered the same fate as many rust belt towns when auto manufacturing dried up and the population shrank. And the downtown, where cranes now tower over the small skyline. Where the young mayor pushed for 33-million dollars in public investments on things like "smart sewers" which use real-time monitoring sensors to prevent flooding and "smart streets" that are pedestrian friendly and intended--among other things--to get people out of their cars and into the downtown shops.
In the poorer neighborhoods of South Bend where blight has taken over, Mayor Buttigieg executed an initiative to demolish 1,000 abandoned homes in 1,000 days.
"He goes to these African American communities that are suffering already from the lack of investment over the years and takes a wrecking ball or machine to remove the homes," Davis told Fox News. "There is no plan in place to return housing back to these areas."
Former South Bend City Controller Mark Neal, who also served as deputy mayor while Buttigieg was deployed oversees, said progress is happening.
"Well for the neighbors who lived next door to those deteriorating properties, thank goodness the houses were taken down," Neal said. "And you now see some infill take place. You’ve have community groups that have begun doing some infill work for themselves. Local people buying properties building smaller homes newer homes or rehabbing other homes to make them now new rentals or make them office space."
Fox News asked Rea, a Republican, if he thought the South Bend mayor has what it takes to go from running a city of 101,000 people to running a country of over 300 million.
"We've seen firsthand that executive experience where he's tried to craft smart solutions to the issues at hand," Rea said. "I suppose you could argue that he hasn't sat across the table from world leaders and negotiated with them on peace treaties or whatever, but in terms of running a very large complex organization, Pete's done it on a small scale here and that's given us a chance to feel like he could do it on a larger scale as well."