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So what’s it like being mayor of a city the size of South Bend? Mass. mayors have a clue

Pete Buttigieg has been South Bend’s mayor for seven years.
Pete Buttigieg has been South Bend’s mayor for seven years.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press/File 2019/Associated Press

There are many ways to visualize the size of South Bend, Ind., where Mayor Pete Buttigieg rose from relative obscurity to become one of the leading Democratic contenders for president.

South Bend is the fourth-largest city in Indiana, after Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Evansville. Its population, roughly 102,000, is smaller than that of the neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn. The city occupies 42 square miles, about the same as Disney World.

But these thought experiments alone cannot capture the true experience of being the mayor of a midsize city, and how it might prepare someone to be president of 330 million Americans. For that, we turned to the real experts — the mayors of roughly equivalent cities in Massachusetts. What, exactly, was Mayor Pete’s day-to-day life like over the past seven years?

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“I had a 90-year-old woman call me yesterday and say she was having trouble with her phone,” said Marc McGovern, the mayor of Cambridge, a city slightly larger than South Bend. “And she wanted me to come over and fix it.”

At the grocery store, he said, “it takes me two hours, because everybody stops and asks me questions, everything from ‘I don’t have money for food’ to ‘the paperboy delivers my paper late, what can you do about that?’ ”

McGovern, who is serving his first term, explained that a typical day as mayor involves a wide range of duties.

On one recent Tuesday, for example, he attended a meeting at an elementary school to discuss parking issues for school staff; counseled a constituent who was being evicted; appeared at a lunch for rival football teams; and participated in an ordinance committee meeting to discuss zoning.

Other mayors of midsize cities in Massachusetts said that even seemingly innocuous changes in city logistics can draw the ire of residents.

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“The city went from every week pickup of grass and leaves to every other week,” said William Samaras, the mayor and chair of the city council in Lowell. “I was afraid to go to the supermarket.”

Lowell, like Cambridge, has a city government run by the city council and a city manager, so Samaras’s role as mayor is largely ceremonial. Even so, he said, he must confront the issues tearing through his city head-on.

“We had a major fight over the location of the high school,” Samaras said. “I had people that would come up to me and say, ‘I’m going to vote for you, but please don’t tell my children.’ It was splitting families.”

Buttigieg has, perhaps improbably, gained significant traction among Democratic voters in recent weeks, particularly those who find Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders too progressive and those uneasy about former vice president Joe Biden. The mayor has framed his lack of national experience as a plus, reminding voters at the last debate that “there’s more than 100 years of Washington experience on this stage, and where are we right now as a country?”

His most prominent mayoral episode came in June, when South Bend residents unloaded on him after a white police officer shot a black man in his city.

He left the campaign trail to hear out local residents.

Buttigieg declined to run for a third term, and this fall voters elected James Mueller, his former chief of staff and hand-picked successor.

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Few former mayors have been elected president. And so, the question remains: Is running South Bend significant enough experience to prepare Buttigieg to be leader of the free world?

Across Massachusetts, the mayors pointed out that they are often the most accessible elected representatives in people’s lives, meaning they take criticism for things that go wrong — too much traffic, too much trash — but also get called upon to celebrate significant milestones with their constituents.

“It’s amazing to me the amount of people who are living now to 100 years old,” said Thomas Koch, the mayor of Quincy. He knows how many people are turning 100 in his city of 95,000 because his office is called upon to issue “all kinds of commendations and proclamations” — for 100-year-old birthdays, and for wedding anniversaries and retirements.

There are many other tasks, as well. This week, Koch was overseeing a range of city events, including a Football Hall of Fame and Seniors dinner for Quincy and North Quincy High (football rivals); a parade and tree lighting ceremony on the Common; and the annual tradition of Santa Claus parachuting out of a plane.

“We hope and pray he hits his mark,” Koch said.

Of course, mayors’ responsibilities vary widely from city to city, and, as the mayor of New Bedford (population 95,000) pointed out, population size is not the only comparison point. New Bedford, like South Bend, is not a satellite city close to a major hub like Boston and there Mayor Jon Mitchell said he oversees a $400 million budget, 3,400 employees, the regional transit system, the wastewater system, a zoo, an airport, and the Port Authority.

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“It’s far bigger than a lemonade stand,” Mitchell said, adding that he deals day to day with the same issues that presidents must address at the federal level: crime, trade, energy. (He did concede that mayors don’t typically deal with US diplomacy or the military.)

In fact, Mitchell said, being the mayor of a midsize city like New Bedford that is far from a major hub is “arguably the most demanding job in American political life.”

And perhaps it’s true. Midsize-city mayors have to handle the whole range of problems: the cracked sidewalks, the felled tree limbs, the fighting football teams, the broken phones, and the plummeting Santas.

But even Buttigieg’s cohort of contemporaries is a bit skeptical of making the leap from mayor to president.

“With all that being said about the importance of mayors,” said McGovern of Cambridge, “I’m endorsing Elizabeth Warren.”


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.