SOUTH BEND  — Mayor Pete won another South Bend election. This one wasn’t so big. Or was it?

While Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s name wasn’t on the ballot Tuesday, his candidate’s name was. James Mueller, his candidate, his choice to be his successor as mayor, won the Democratic mayoral nomination, tantamount to being elected mayor of South Bend.

Mueller, with 37% of the vote, won with a double-digit percentage margin over the nearest competitor in a nine-candidate field that included four other candidates considered viable.

Not bad for a candidate who came from nowhere. Well, he of course came from somewhere, from the Buttigieg administration, where he was the mayor’s chief of staff and then executive director of a key development department. But, politically, from nowhere.

Mueller began the race with low political name recognition, no cultivated political following and lack of political campaign expertise. He hadn’t planned to run. Didn’t at first really want to run.

Buttigieg told victory celebrants Tuesday night that Mueller “answered the call when it was not the most comfortable or obvious thing to do. It’s why, even though he’s not the cigar-chomping, back-slapping politician that some people might expect, and neither am I, he is exactly the right person.”

Mueller took a chance. It was not always certain that he would win.

Buttigieg took a bigger chance. He put his own prestige on the line while seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Mueller’s win isn’t a plus for Buttigieg with voters nationally. No Iowa caucus-goer will proclaim: “I’m for Mayor Pete. Hey, he got Mayor James elected in South Bend.”

However, if his hand-picked successor had been defeated in the city Buttigieg cites in his book, speeches and myriad news media interviews as a place he helped to turn around, knocking some rust off the Rust Belt city and encouraging a new “can do” attitude, the national news media would have pounced.

The news would have been that South Bend rejected Buttigieg’s choice for successor, rejecting Mayor Pete and his claims of progress in the city.

The question would be asked: If he was really such a good mayor, worthy of consideration for the presidency, why did his constituents vote against him, against his is choice for mayor, against the guy pledged to continue his programs? A loss by Mueller would have been viewed as a slap from his city at Buttigieg’s presidential aspirations.

Why then did Buttigieg take the risk? He didn’t have to. If he made no endorsement in a South Bend mayoral primary, nobody in the national news media or among movers and shakers in Democratic politics would have cared.

Buttigieg cared. Anybody who has read “Shortest Way Home,” his best-selling book telling the story of South Bend as well as his own story, senses that he really cares about his hometown. And he would like his South Bend legacy to be positive.

For both reasons, he picked Mueller, someone he knows and trusts, and took a chance on all-out support, endorsement and campaign finance help.

It was no sure bet. Mueller, no politician, at least at the start, could have stumbled and failed.

Jason Critchlow, former St. Joseph County Democratic chairman, who finished second to Mueller, could have won with his excellent TV blitz and political expertise. Lynn Coleman, a former congressional candidate who is well-known and well-liked, could have won. He was ahead of Mueller in an early professional poll paid for by Buttigieg. Even the two city council members who sought the nomination and fell flat, way out of contention, Oliver Davis and Regina Williams-Preston, were seen at one time as possible threats to win.

Others could have won. They didn’t. Mueller won. Mayor Pete won again. 

Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.