Pete Buttigieg's Mayoral Staff Was Disproportionately White

The presidential candidate says he prioritized diversity in his city hires, but the data tells another story.

At an NAACP forum last year, Democratic presidential contender Pete Buttigieg told the audience that as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he strived to appoint aides who reflected the city’s diversity, and as president he would do the same. 

“By appointing people who reflect our community, we’ve not only had better representation but we’ve made better decisions,” he said.

But a new analysis by HuffPost of the executive staff Buttigieg surrounded himself with during eight years as mayor found that two-thirds were white, in a city that is roughly half nonwhite. (Prior analyses did not look at his entire tenure as mayor). 

Of the 20 or so staffers who served Buttigieg in high-level positions like chief of staff, deputy mayor, or executive assistants, two were Hispanic and five were Black. (One of those employees was held over from a previous administration.)

Approximately half the South Bend population is non-Hispanic white; another quarter is Black; about 15% is Hispanic.

Attracting support from Black voters has proved a major hurdle for Democrat Pete Buttigieg's presidential bid.
Attracting support from Black voters has proved a major hurdle for Democrat Pete Buttigieg's presidential bid.

It’s another measure of what critics have often said as Buttigieg runs for president: that during his career in public service, his commitment to diversity has been mainly rhetorical. 

His remarks at the NAACP event were a response to a critical question about the makeup of his presidential campaign staff. But just days before he left office on Jan. 1, The Intercept reported that seven out of the city’s nine department heads were white, along with four of his six executive staffers. (The Buttigieg campaign disputes those numbers, saying that six of the department heads were white and that his executive staff included a seventh member who was Black.) Among the few people of color in his office was a Black administrative assistant who has worked for South Bend since 1998, long before he was mayor.

HuffPost’s new analysis also shows that the racial diversity of his executive staff did not change dramatically from his first term as mayor to his second, when he was reelected with a promise to appoint diverse leadership. 

“Research shows that any organization — government, business, you name it — performs better when it’s got diverse makeup and diverse leadership,” he said to a local news channel shortly after winning his second term in November 2015. “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’s presidential staff stressed the candidate’s commitment to diversity during his time as mayor.

“As mayor of South Bend, Pete worked to promote equity and inclusion, created the city’s first office of Diversity & Inclusion, commissioned the first-ever study to quantify the racial wealth gap in South Bend, and reformed the city’s procurement process to increase the number of contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses,” Sean Savett, a spokesperson for the campaign, said.

Some 40% of his entire staff consisted of people of color for most of his administration, Savett added, as are roughly 40% of his presidential campaign staff. Savett added that turnover among people of color was lower than for white people. “As a presidential candidate, Pete has made it a priority to build a team that reflects the diversity of the country and of our party … and Pete has pledged to make sure his Cabinet will reflect the diversity of the people it represents,” the spokesman said.

As he seeks the presidency, Buttigieg is a leading contender in the polls in several early nominating states. But the surveys show he has attracted little support from Black or other minority voters who form a huge share of the Democratic Party’s base. 

His often-fraught relationship with South Bend’s Black community has come up for frequent scrutiny. And Buttigieg has struggled to forge a better relationship with people of color going forward: local Black Lives Matter activists interrupted a recent gathering of South Bend Black leaders who supported the mayor’s record.

And when his campaign said that his “Douglass Plan” to attack systemic racism was supported by dozens of prominent Black South Carolina Democrats, reporters discovered that several of the prominent people on the list were unaware that the campaign was framing their support like an endorsement, and that many of the signees were white.

South Bend residents constantly criticized the lack of diversity on Buttigieg’s staff while he was mayor — no more than when the new mayor removed the popular Black chief of police. The chief had been embroiled in a scandal involving the improper recordings of police officers allegedly making racist statements. His demotion and later firing frayed the mayor’s relationship with many in South Bend’s Black community.

The city’s former fire chief, one of several Black men who had been in a city leadership role before Buttigieg became mayor, recalled telling him at the time: “You led us to believe that a lot of minorities were going to be in your administration. But Mayor Pete, I don’t see that.”