SOUTH BEND – Mayor Pete was presented with a “POTUS Pete” shirt, bright red letters on white, as he was introduced Monday at Dyngus Day festivities at the West Side Democratic & Civic Club.

Some in the enthusiastic crowd packing the old club, traditional center for Dyngusing and where Bobby Kennedy campaigned for president, were initially unsure of the meaning of the lettering, referring to Washington alphabet lingo for President of the United States.

But they all knew that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is making a big splash nationally in his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. And they couldn’t miss all the national news media coverage, TV camera crews and all.

Buttigieg told the crowd that he had urged journalists covering his events in Iowa and New Hampshire and elsewhere to come to South Bend for Dyngus Day to witness the celebrated event in his hometown.

What day? What is it? They didn’t know. And the mayor told them: “You’ve just got to see it and you’ll understand.”

The Monday-after-Easter event has been celebrated for well over a century in Polish-American neighborhoods on South Bend’s west side, with traditions traced back to Poland. Now, it’s celebrated all over the area. It’s sort of a Polish version of St. Patrick’s Day; ethnic food (kielbasa) and music (polka) and abundant liquid refreshment, plus conviviality and crowds that bring campaigning candidates to meet one on one with voters.

Buttigieg called it “politics at its finest.” Easy to see why Buttigieg welcomed national coverage. Cheers of “Pete, Pete, Pete” came as he mentioned the presidency. He’s at the height of his popularity here in his eighth year as mayor, and it didn’t hurt to have the national news media around to see the enthusiastic support in the city he has made so much a part of his campaign.

“South Bend is our message,” he told the crowd. Indeed, a central part of his campaign theme is that his city, with a new spirit, has moved on from the decades of gloom and “can’t-do” despair after the demise of Studebaker automotive production. He stressed that he never made a Trump-like only-I-can-do-it claim or suggested that he turned around the city single-handedly.

“We grew together,” the mayor said, referring to the growth of economic developments, jobs and population in the city and his own growth in political stature to rank among top contenders for the presidential nomination.

“South Bend is back,” he declared, setting off more cheers and applause.

“Let the rest of the country learn from the city’s story,” he said. “Can I count on you to tell the real story . . .?” They shouted affirmatively. And most of the local residents interviewed by the national news media provided positive evaluations of the mayor and his policies. But not all.

Criticism of the mayor in quotes from Regina Williams-Preston, a council member seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor in the May primary, appear in numerous national accounts. She is highly critical of what had generally been hailed as a remarkable achievement, fixing up or tearing down over 1,000 empty and deteriorating homes in 1,000 days. Williams-Preston and some other African-Americans contend that the effort did not result in more affordable housing or better living in lower-income neighborhoods.

He does have the support of other prominent blacks, including City Clerk Kareemah Fowler, the first African-American elected to that post after Buttigieg provided key support for her in winning an election contest with a white police officer once regarded as the favorite.  

It was a long Dyngus Day for Buttigieg. He went to a Dyngus site at 5 a.m. for TV interviews. Then, more interviews with national news organizations before going in late morning to unveil a “Solidarity Day” street sign at the site of the city’s Solidarity Day observance, an African-American event held on Dyngus Day since 1971. It was started back then by blacks who didn’t feel welcome at some Dyngus sites and decided to hold their own event and welcome all candidates to attend.

He also unveiled a “Dyngus Day” street sign at the West Side Democratic Club and spoke there at the traditional noon introduction of candidates - only Democratic candidates are introduced. Immediately after speaking, Buttigieg flew to New Hampshire for a live CNN town hall meeting from 11 p.m. until midnight.

Some at the Dyngus event wondered why the mayor didn’t skip it this year in order to prepare for and arrive fresh for his national TV appearance on CNN. He stressed, however, not only the importance he placed on showing off Dyngus Day for the national news media but also how appearing at the club for his eighth and final time as mayor “is emotional for me.” He noted how the Dyngus attendees at the club always “were there for me” in his political activities, to welcome him home from active duty in Afghanistan and to back him in the personal decision to come out as gay and be married.

His husband, Chasten Buttigieg, who has become an effective campaigner and political celebrity in his own right, joined the mayor on the platform and received applause, long and loud. Such a warm reception likely would not have occurred there 20 years ago or even 10.

Buttigieg concluded with a promise: “No matter what happens . . . South Bend will always be home.”

Whether he will be home for Dyngus Day in 2021 as POTUS Pete or VP Pete or Secretary of Something Pete or just as former Mayor Pete will be determined over the presidential marathon that has just begun.  

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