The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is known for keeping a low profile. James Mueller was sworn into office on New Year’s Day at the age of 37, making him much younger than the mayors of other, comparably sized cities in his state. But he’s already familiar with City Hall, having spent four years in the previous administration as the mayor’s chief of staff and the city’s director of community investment.
Mueller’s office did not respond to multiple requests from Slate to talk about his new job running a Midwestern city of 100,000. But people who have worked with him describe him as very cerebral and reserved, far from the polished stereotype of a politician. A native of South Bend, he obtained three bachelor’s degrees from Notre Dame—one each in mathematics, history, and philosophy—then went on to the University of Delaware to earn a Ph.D. in oceanography.
Like many bright young people from midsize cities in the middle of the country, he settled into a job in a metropolitan coastal city, working in Washington on public policy for Congress and a think tank. But he reversed direction and came back home to take a role in municipal government.
And now, while the nation is absorbed in the drama of presidential campaigns and geopolitical crisis, he is taking charge of the street-level governance that shapes people’s everyday lives. After defeating eight people in the primary, he won the general election with 9,437 votes, or 63 percent.
Mueller was not someone who has sought to thrust himself out in front of the scenes. In interviews, people in South Bend who’ve dealt with him describe him as a technocrat who does more listening than talking. They said he takes a facts-first approach to leadership, and he is not afraid to delegate responsibility to people he trusts to judge the pros and cons of situations.
People “were having trouble picturing him as someone who could be a dynamic leader, who could move people with his oratory,” said Jeff Parrott, a longtime reporter for the South Bend Tribune who has covered Mueller since 2015. He did not give rousing speeches like more charismatic youthful politicians. “But he won,” Parrott said. “And so, now, his supporters have always said that they’re confident that he’ll grow into that role, that he’ll gain some of those political skills as he settles into the office. That’ll be interesting to see, if he changes at all.”
Change is a crucial question in a city that has built an image around itself as an evolving place.
Denise Riedl, who holds the position of South Bend’s chief innovation officer, said that Mueller is interested in using the city’s existing SB Stat program as a way to assess neighborhood strength and how current city programs are lifting up neighborhoods. Should they be scaled, should the city be pivoting into new directions? The aim is to understand neighborhood health by integrating the work of teams from public works, code enforcement, and arts departments.
Mueller is keeping the department heads he worked with from the previous administration. But some residents hope he can direct the city’s existing vision of change in new directions, and to new places.
Wayne Hubbard, a community activist and organizer who is pushing for school reform, a homeless prevention plan, and legalizing medicinal and recreational marijuana use, said he hopes that Mueller will focus his energies on building areas of the city outside of downtown, in the poorer neighborhoods on South Bend’s west and southeast sides, where the decline of manufacturing has led to decades of distress.
“If [the city] can spend millions of dollars on parks, they can spend a million dollars and clean up an entire side of a neighborhood,” Hubbard said. “They could do the same things and they just don’t. The only thing that’s changed in South Bend is downtown. Downtown is doing great. The rest of the city? It’s starving.”
Jorden Giger, an activist with Black Lives Matter South Bend, worked with Mueller in his earlier official roles.
“He has an opportunity right now to really make a change and do something different,” said Giger. Giger said Mueller told him his administration will pay attention to “addressing existing disparities along the line of race and class—so we’ll see.”
In his previous roles, Giger said, Mueller did make changes to the status quo, but it didn’t come without pressure from the outside and City Council members. Giger recounts one instance when local organizers pushed Mueller’s department and the city to set aside dollars for a neighborhood impact survey as part of a larger city-commissioned market study.
“When it comes to matters of race and class, like he really didn’t know a whole lot when I first met him,” said Giger. But, he said, he’s seen the new mayor learn things over time. “All in all, I’m hopeful, because I’ve had a closer working relationship with him,” Giger said. “I know that he is someone who can really be pushed.”
Giger hopes that Mueller will be intentional about including folks who historically have not been included. “He has to make room for other voices to be able to weigh in on issues,” he said.
Giger also said he wants to see Mueller work with business owners of color, specifically Black ones, to ensure they are getting contracts with the City of South Bend. And he calls for more police accountability—including an implicit bias or a cultural competency test for the police and a citizens review board that has power to subpoena, prosecute and to hire or fire officers.
“I think that James will be OK,” said Muhammad Shabazz, an activist who is also the Democratic member of the St. Joseph County voter registration board. “I talked to my councilperson, Tim Scott, often and Tim will be working with him. Tim is the president of the council, so he’ll be able to work with people that got knowledge of everything that’s going on that’s been there for a while.
“I mean he has a lot of support,” Shabazz said, “so that works in his favor.”