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Meet the Black People Who Helped Make Mayor Pete

Howard Buchanon, left, and Kenny Marks, were adversaries as chief and union president of the South Bend Fire Department, but united behind Pete Buttigieg.


(Image: Screengrabs of TYT video.)

This is how it goes when Captain Kenny Marks lets me out of the freezing wind and into his South Bend firehouse:

Me: “You’re not what I was expecting.”

Marks: “What was that? White?”

The fact that Marks is black is actually why I’m there. What surprises me is that Marks wasn’t the larger-than-life figure Buttigieg describes in his memoir, “Shortest Way Home.”

In the book, it’s 2011. Buttigieg and campaign manager Mike Schmuhl have come, “fresh-faced and clean-cut,” to court the local firefighters union. Marks was president:

“A big man who was also a deacon at Mount Carmel, the fastest-growing black church in town, he leaned back in his seat and shifted between knowing glances at his fellow firefighters and piercing stares at us. He seemed interested but skeptical. ‘I like what I’m seeing, and I like what you’re saying. But how do I know you’re not just another sweet-talking devil trying to get my pants off?’”

Despite that vivid anecdote, in the year since it was published not a single reporter has asked Marks about their meeting. I’m the first, ringing the bell of his firehouse on January 18 in the year 2020. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I’m nine years late.

He agrees to talk to me later, not at work, even though, for all Kenny Marks knows, I’m just another sweet-talking devil trying to get his pants off.

While Buttigieg’s police issues have drawn far more scrutiny, people have their own stories to tell in the Fire Department and even, I would learn, inside the mayor’s office. (Buttigieg’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

Race is a recurring theme. Black supporters of Buttigieg’s first mayoral campaign report getting marginalized, missing out on jobs or promotions, or losing leadership positions entirely. One hands over his job to the stepson of a white, Republican Buttigieg donor. Some are consulted when Buttigieg needs help, but other times ignored. His administration’s scarcity of black people, men in particular, is noted.

As head of the firefighters’ union, Marks was obliged to butt heads with the department’s chief, Howard Buchanon. But they have similar stories to tell. I find Buchanon, too. Only this time, I’m not the first.

Last month, the Associated Press upended a narrative that Buttigieg first put out the day he became mayor: That he had to replace Buchanon, because Buchanon was retiring. In reality, Buchanon had to retire, because Buttigieg was replacing him. Buchanon tells me there’s more to it.

He says he filed his February 2012 retirement date three years prior, specifically timing it so that if a new mayor took office in January 2012, the two of them would have a month to see how they got along. Then Buchanon could choose whether to go through with retirement.

He didn’t get the chance. Before taking office, Buttigieg decides to interview candidates for the chief’s position. When Buchanon gets his turn, he tells Buttigieg and Schmuhl he’s been following the path laid down by then-Mayor Steve Luecke. He assures Buttigieg, “I have no problem running it however you want… I’m flexible on all ends.”

But if Buttigieg or Schmuhl had problems with Buchanon’s leadership, they didn’t give him the opportunity to address them. Just the opposite. “They were pretty much praising me for the things I had done… They didn’t say ‘What about this?’ or ‘What about that?’ No, everything was all positive. I mean, nothing negative.”

Despite apparently nailing the interview, Buchanon says he knew he was out before he walked in. Because he knew who else wanted it.

Steve Cox is a white guy and, in Buchanon’s eyes, was a fine assistant chief. Buchanon himself had promoted Cox to head up emergency medical services. Two other candidates, however, both Hispanic, were more experienced. Buchanon had almost twice the years on the job. And just three months before his interview, Buchanon was named Indiana Fire Chief of the Year. So why did Buchanon think the new mayor would replace him? Connections.

“They were high school friends,” Buchanon says, referring to Cox and Schmuhl. “Schmuhl could go to [Cox’s] mama’s kitchen and go right into the refrigerator… I could see the writing on the wall.”

And Cox had another connection Buchanon didn’t know about.

Since April, Buttigieg has refused to release his first mayoral campaign-finance forms, which the county destroyed. But some, obtained by The Young Turks, show that Cox’s stepfather was one of Buttigieg’s biggest and most active backers in the primary.

Bruce BonDurant, a Republican lawyer on the city’s Board of Public Safety — which has some Fire Department oversight — married Cox’s mother in 1979. In 2010, on the second day Buttigieg received donations for his mayoral campaign, before he even announced, BonDurant gave him $500.

The next filing ties BonDurant to unspecified campaign events, presumably fundraisers. Buttigieg’s forms for the general election remain secret, but Buchanon tells me that BonDurant hosted a fundraiser for Buttigieg at his home after the primary, just before his stepson got the chief’s job.

On Jan. 18, 2012, BonDurant stepped down from the Board of Public Safety to avoid the “conflict of interest” with his stepson, the incoming fire chief. (That summer, Buttigieg appointed BonDurant to the Board of Parks Commissioners.)

Ironically, Buchanon helped Buttigieg because he wanted to keep his job. At the annual Fire Department smoker in January 2011, some captains were heard complaining about Buchanon to Mike Hamann, Buttigieg’s rival for the Democratic nomination.

Buchanon tells me he thought Buttigieg was the safest bet for protecting his own job and those of his top officers. (Reached for comment, Hamann tells me he had no plan to replace Buchanon and says he was on the record in 2011 at public forums refusing to commit to any personnel changes.)

Making Inroads

Buchanon’s support for Buttigieg led to support from the black community. People asked Buchanon what a Buttigieg victory would mean for him. “I’d say, ‘Well, if he wins, that’s the possibility that I could remain chief.’ Okay, well, then, they gathered around and they said, ‘Okay, we’re going to support him.’… a lot of people in the black community.”

Another possible contender for the chief’s position served Buttigieg in the same capacity in the Hispanic community. “Because he is a leader in the Hispanic community,” Buchanon says, “they all jump on the bandwagon to assist with the campaign… They rally around him big time.”

Marks, too, helps Buttigieg win the primary. As Buttigieg recounts in his book, the union not only endorsed him, they came through with t-shirts.

The book also refers, by first name only, to a campaign staffer named Cordell. As Buttigieg writes, “Cordell, our volunteer coordinator, checked on walkers headed to African-American neighborhoods on the West Side…”

Independently, both Marks and Buchanon tell me about the inroads Cordell made for Buttigieg with black voters.

Marks recalls Buttigieg’s campaign this way: “He was wise enough to do this: he kept two young black men around him the entire time… Any time he was dealing with people of color, those two young black men, or one of the two would be with him.”

According to Tom Price, assistant to Mayor Luecke, Cordell “was the difference-maker for Pete in the black community.”

Unlike other campaign staffers, I’m told, Cordell didn’t get a job in the new administration. When I get Cordell on the phone, he confirms that he was a full-time staffer on the campaign.

I ask whether he wanted a job in the new administration. He says, “Yeah, there were conversations,” but tells me he has to get back to work. He doesn’t respond to my followup messages. His online resume lists his next job as an event coordinator for Consuella’s Accounting and Tax firm. He no longer lives in South Bend.

While Cordell, Howard Buchanon, Kenny Marks, and others put black muscle behind Buttigieg, black capital was in short supply.

Among the 56 donors listed in his 2010 annual filing — including businesses, groups, and 47 individuals — TYT was able to identify only four non-white donors. By contrast, five white people named Brown either donated or ran businesses that did. One of the non-white donors was a woman, of Japanese descent. Buttigieg got no donations from black men, but did get one from a white partner at Black, Mann & Graham, a Texas law firm.

Together, the four non-white donors accounted for $200, almost four-tenths of one percent of Buttigieg’s initial fundraising. (By contrast, three Republican donors wrote checks to Buttigieg totaling $6000.)

When Buttigieg kicked off his campaign, he told his supporters, “I’m not an incumbent, not the product of any political machinery.” A new age against the machine.

In his book, Buttigieg details the sprawling tentacles of his Democratic rivals, Hamann and Ryan Dvorak. I ask them whether Buttigieg was going up against a machine. Dvorak doesn't respond. Hamann says, “Bullshit.”

Buttigieg’s assurance at his kickoff that he wasn’t the product of political machinery was relayed by a local TV station. The same story unironically notes the presence of former South Bend Mayor Roger Parent in the audience and quotes the county auditor saying, “There’s some big players here.”

The role of other big players isn't mentioned in the press. The Texas law firm, for instance, once retained the legal services of then-Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Schmuhl's old boss. Donnelly's fellow Notre Dame alum at the firm is partner Tom Black, who writes Buttigieg a check for $10,000 before he even announces.

The announcement itself occurs in a building owned by one of South Bend’s biggest players: Bob Urbanski, a wealthy contractor who first got involved in city politics back in the ‘70s and chaired Buttigieg’s campaign. TYT previously reported that white police allegedly sought Urbanski’s help to get Buttigieg to remove Darryl Boykins as chief.

The same 2010 filing that shows BonDurant donating to Buttigieg lists a $10,000 contribution from Urbanski the day before. Buttigieg donors are now linked to his removal of both the black police chief and the black fire chief.

The Transition

Although Buttigieg’s mayoral appointments end up drawing the most attention, I hear from two people, both on the record, that early signs of trouble appeared in the transition. Although it lasted only a few weeks, the transition was fraught.

The fact that Buttigieg did not keep Lynn Coleman — special assistant to Mayor Luecke and a former division chief in the police force — was public knowledge, and was cited in Boykins’ discrimination lawsuit. Coleman did not respond to a request for comment, but Buchanon and Price tell me that during the transition, Buttigieg effectively ghosted Coleman and others on Luecke’s staff.

Although Buttigieg had met with Coleman at the dawn of the mayor’s race — to find out whether Coleman would run against him, or maybe endorse him — they hadn’t spoken substantively since then. That remains true even during the transition. Buttigieg barely speaks to Coleman, some days not even saying hello as they pass each other in the halls of the County-City Building.

Nevertheless, Price says, Coleman told them at the time that he had “reached out repeatedly to Pete’s team — which was ignoring him — and planned to continue to reach out.”

Ultimately, Coleman confronts Schmuhl about the transition process. It’s “disrespectful” not just to him but to others. The Luecke veterans aren’t asked to do anything; they’re not consulted on future plans. They’re not even asked basic questions at the heart of any transition. What should we know? Where are the bodies buried? Where are the bathroom keys?

One question they did ask, repeatedly, was whether any Luecke staff might be suitable for the new administration. What kind of people? “Young, peppy people,” Price recalls.

Luecke’s team knows new mayors typically bring in their own people, but no one ever has the conversation with them. When they finally learn they won’t be kept on, it’s Luecke who tells them. Price says, “Mayor Steve was very apologetic, had the look of one who was grieving, and told us Pete had asked Mayor Steve to convey to each of us that he did not plan to retain anyone… Mayor Steve repeatedly apologized, not only for the decision but for having to convey it to us.” And then they’re gone.

Under Luecke, Buchanon and other black leaders say, the black community had black city officials to whom they could turn, to whom they could speak, and from whom they could expect direct action. No white supervisor’s permission required.

During the campaign, Buchanon says, Buttigieg “led us to believe things were gonna keep moving the way they are.” The point, Buchanon says, was not his survival, but the survival of black representation in positions of power.

“When you have black people in leadership, you think, ‘Well, maybe it’s not going to be me, maybe not Darryl, but it could be another person in leadership… we would still have someone African-American somewhere up in his administration.”

Buchanon even says he was okay with his own departure. Why? “When [Buttigieg] didn’t choose me and he kept Darryl, that was great.” It lasted three months.

Then, when the black community erupts over Buttigieg’s treatment of Boykins, the new mayor gives his retired fire chief a call. Buchanon asks him how he’s doing. “Aw, this Darryl thing has got me. He said, ‘can we meet for breakfast?’ I said, ‘sure, why not.’”

Buchanon described the breakfast to the AP: Buttigieg, silent, dropping his head when Buchanon asks him why there’s no black or Hispanic leadership in his administration. I ask what happened next. What did Buttigieg actually say?

“He didn’t say that I’m going to change it,” Buchanon says. Instead, the new mayor says nothing. Buchanon gets the message: “I guess, well, we don’t want to talk about that anymore. So, pretty much after that we just started talking general stuff, you know.” They haven’t spoken substantively since.

Buttigieg may not have wanted to discuss diversity with Buchanon, but he didn’t hold back eight months later. in a year-end interview with the South Bend Tribune, he went on offense against his critics: “The suggestion that my administration isn’t committed to diversity is outrageous.”

Mayor Pete

On the campaign trail today, Buttigieg sounds a regretful note about his record on race. “We couldn’t get it done,” he said, about falling diversity in the police force. (TYT and The Root previously reported that more than a dozen officers reached out to Buttigieg and got no response.)

But behind the scenes, Buttigieg has responded differently to concerns about issues of race. In a September 2017 email obtained by TYT, Buttigieg and officials from the city and county party discuss a detailed Indivisible post on Facebook about black issues. The group alleges, among other things, that, “young black activists have pressed South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his administration on matters of diversity and inclusion related to safe, affordable and quality housing and economic development… to no avail.”

“Where are they getting this crap from?” Buttigieg says.

TYT has also learned that Buttigieg was alerted by a member of his staff about an issue of pay disparity. Buttigieg had awarded his incoming communications director — a white, recent college graduate in his first job — a salary on par with what he was paying his director of community outreach, a black woman with years of experience.

Like Buchanon, Marks pays a price for helping Buttigieg. Before Buttigieg even takes office, rank and file firefighters who wanted to back Hamann vote Marks out as union president. Meanwhile, in his first month as fire chief, Cox promotes the white union vice president, who also endorsed Buttigieg, from captain to assistant chief. Marks is still a captain.

Reading his face, I’m guessing it’s not pleasant for him, but Marks lets me quote to him his appearance in Buttigieg’s book. He says he’s “embarrassed” that he’s in it. That people will read it and not know who he really is, as a person.

“He fooled me,” Marks says. He says Buttigieg won him over with three words: Transparency, diversity, and inclusion. They haven’t spoken substantively since.

Marks’ endorsement was part of Buttigieg’s pitch back in 2011. He posted a photo of him, Marks, and other union members on Flickr. Now, even though Marks refers habitually to Donald Trump as “the orange anus,” he says that if Buttigieg is the Democratic nominee, he won’t vote for either of them. When he told black firefighters around the country about Butitgieg, he says they decided not to vote for him, either.

“If his lack of diversity as the mayor of the city of South Bend was so blatantly obvious,” Marks says, “why then would he mention that a large, black man would endorse him in any way? So, the embarrassment for me was knowing that who and what I am as a person was being used to continue to push his agenda.

“A name in a book is just a name. Nobody has any idea that they have a 6’2”, 295-pound man of color. Nobody has any idea of that when you’re reading the book.”

When I leave South Bend, I can’t claim I know Kenny Marks any better than the book’s readers do. But I do know what to expect now. This time, Kenny Marks won’t be part of the pitch.

Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.

With additional research and reporting by TYT Investigates News Assistant Zoltan Lucas and Intern Jamia Zarzuela, and assistance from members of the TYT Army.

If you have tips on this subject or others you can contact us using Proton Mail at [email protected]. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to stay on top of exclusive news stories from The Young Turks.


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