WEST PALM BEACH — A parking lot wall is painted with a mural that challenges Keith James each time he looks out his second-story window at city hall.
Dear West Palm Beach... Dream bigger.
The words crossed James’ sight line this month as he practiced his first annual address as West Palm Beach’s mayor.
James, 61, outlined his vision for the thriving coastal community. Keep crime low. Focus on the economy and environment. Fight homelessness. He fussed over a line addressing the city’s poverty rate.
“Is that powerful enough?” he asked his communications director.
After 40 minutes of rehearsing and rewriting, James needed a break. Had he ever considered what it would take to run for president?
“I couldn’t even imagine,” James said.
He scanned his email inbox, finding the latest crisis. Some city banners honoring Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday were hung upside down, stirring complaints.
“These are the kinds of things I deal with as a mayor,” James said, shaking his head. “It’s like, ‘really?’ ”
Keith James is not running for president. But Pete Buttigieg is.
Buttigieg, one of the leading Democratic contenders, recently ended an eight-year run as the mayor of South Bend, Ind. He has inspired voters looking for fresh voices outside Washington, though his opponents have publicly questioned whether commanding a city of 102,000 people is a reasonable stepping stone to the nation’s highest office.
But Buttigieg, 38, has outlasted senators and governors with longer careers and easier to pronounce last names. He is well-financed, well-organized and near the top of polls in Iowa and New Hampshire.
To better understand Buttigieg’s mayoral experience, the Tampa Bay Times recently followed James — another Harvard-educated, trailblazing, red-state Democrat leading a city of similar size — through a work day. For all of its challenges, even James wonders if his job would prepare him for a national campaign or help him navigate threats from Iran and trade wars with China.
“I know how much I put into just getting this job,” said James, who hasn’t endorsed in the race and is undecided on who to vote for. “So to magnify that by a factor of, I don’t know, 100? One thousand? I can’t wrap my mind around it.”
Over eight hours, numerous people request James’ time. Usually, they’re asking for something.
The school district wants more parking spots for a high school. A local bank wants city business. A philanthropist wants help with a food truck. The city’s redevelopment leader wants more money to revive an historic black jazz lounge. A business group wants him at their luncheon. Another wants him to speak to their leadership class.
His job, James said, is “to articulate a broader, aspirational vision” for his city. It’s also to fill potholes — 2,753 of them last year.
At 110,000 people, West Palm Beach is slightly more populous than South Bend. Its opulence is hard to match. The city’s sun-soaked marina teems with yachts bigger than many Indiana homes. President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort is just across the bridge.
But like the South Bend that Buttigieg helped rebuild, West Palm Beach is a city of post-recession successes and generational poverty. Its leaders confront racial tensions and the chronically homeless. There are murders and drugs dealt in broad daylight. In South Bend and West Palm Beach, about one in six don’t have health insurance.
These are problems that will undoubtedly burden the next president. But “there’s a legitimate question about the scale between South Bend and running the country," former Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
Buckhorn hasn’t endorsed yet. But he said he was encouraged that the race now includes Michael Bloomberg, another candidate with experience as mayor, but of a city, New York, with a population 86 times the size of South Bend’s.
Buttigieg has contended that his record is no less valuable than the cadre of candidates from a dysfunctional Washington, D.C.
“If you just go by vote totals, maybe what goes on in my city seems small to you,” Buttigieg said in the December debate. “If you want to talk about the capacity to win, try putting together a coalition to bring you back to office with 80 percent of the vote as a gay dude in Mike Pence’s Indiana.”
Artifacts from West Palm Beach’s real estate boom adorn James’ office. Nine shovels from ground-breaking ceremonies lean against his wall. Commemorative hardhats and books with titles like “Walkable City Rules” fill shelves. City hall approved half a billion dollars in building permits last year and $3.6 billion in construction is underway. More than 200 financial firms have moved into the city and more say they’re coming.
The city’s growth hasn’t reached every corner. Gunfire persists in the city’s Historic Northwest, a predominately black neighborhood. James, the city’s first African-American elected mayor, grew up in Wichita, Kan., and moved to West Palm Beach as a corporate lawyer in 1987. He previously served two terms on the city commission, though didn’t represent the parts of the city known for blighted homes and drug epidemics.
James won last year on a pledge to tackle the city’s violent crime. He demoted the police chief he inherited in one of his first acts as mayor. He installed Frank Adderley, a former police chief in Fort Lauderdale and Broward County Sheriff’s Office colonel who had experience dealing with urban crime. A new task force targeted gang activities. Community policing was prioritized.
James vowed to go to every homicide scene. A few weeks after taking office in April, the first call came: A double murder. He still can’t shake what he saw. Tarps covering two bodies. The anguish on the faces of the victims’ relatives.
These were “gangbangers” who were “caught up in the game,” James said, but they were also a son, a father, a nephew. When he returned home, it was hours before he spoke again.
“I wanted to give a message that there’s a mayor in the city that cares about the fact that you’ve lost a loved one, no matter what that loved one did in his life,” James said. He thinks the city’s approach to violent crime has worked. Homicides are down 30 percent.
James can see faint parallels between his job and the one Buttigieg wants.
The attention is unexpected. His wife, Lorna James, said the couple became recognizable in public almost overnight. They now field many selfie requests.
The mayor is more careful with what he says, guarding against unintended promises or unnecessary public panic. He values his time more. Early in his term he met with anyone, often alone with no excuse to break away. He now comes armed with staff. After 20 minutes, he leaves and turns the meeting over to them.
As mayor, he needs three of five city commissioners to approve his initiatives. It’s like a president having to work with Congress, James said.
But he is also frustrated where his power is limited. Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature has prevented mayors like him from enacting gun restrictions or regulating medicinal marijuana.
“Look, I would not discount someone who was a mayor. I think it’s a plus, not a minus, and I think (Buttigieg) is quite outstanding,” said U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a former West Palm Beach mayor who took a more traditional path to Washington. “But it is a different experience having to deal with a Congress than a small city council.”
For his supporters, Buttigieg’s background is deeper than his time as a Midwest mayor. He served as a naval intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and was deployed to Afghanistan. He earned a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. He would be the country’s first openly gay president. It’s all a factor in why he remains in contention and other mayors — New York’s Bill de Blasio and Miramar’s Wayne Messam — flamed out.
To the naysayers, he quips that he has “more years of government experience” than Trump.
Parkland mayor Christine Hunschofsky calls Buttigieg an extraordinary human being who has experience dealing with the issues that affect so many across the country.
“I find it ironic," she said, "that people are questioning the ability of a mayor and yet if you read the polls of the favorability of municipal leaders versus federal representatives, the municipals win out every time.”
In the late afternoon, the conference room next to James’ office is full once again to hear from Richard Stone, a lawyer and philanthropist. Stone thought he had presented city officials with an inspired idea to curb homelessness in West Palm Beach: a free food truck paired with city services. He didn’t realize he had hit a nerve.
The homeless problem in West Palm Beach is getting worse, Stone asserted in his pitch. "Before we spend money on other things, on cultural events, we should resolve this problem.”
James closed his eyes, a long, deep blink. He planned to tell residents in his annual address that the homeless population is shrinking, that the city is doing more than ever to get people off the streets. He hoped it would be a departure from a controversy last summer.
In July, local news outlets reported that the city blasted the children’s song Baby Shark on loop to drive homeless people off its waterfront pavilion. James concedes now that West Palm Beach “went frickin’ viral.” CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The New York Times and The Washington Post did stories. Emails flooded city hall inboxes. Yes, the city did this, James said, but where were all the cameras when the city announced it had added more transitional housing beds?
James peered through his two-toned glasses at Stone. “First of all,” he wound up, “I don’t think it’s getting worse. We have statistics showing us that it is not getting worse. I don’t want that to go unchecked."
James listened as Stone and staff hammered out ideas for another 15 minutes. As their chatter continued, he excused himself.
On to the next meeting.