As a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserves, you left the mayor’s office for seven months in 2014 to serve in Afghanistan. What was that like?
Definitely a status shift from being mayor. I was a lieutenant, which is a pretty junior officer. But it was one of the most important responsibilities I had. I was a liaison officer, so I did a lot of intelligence work at headquarters. But honestly, the most important responsibility I had was when they needed an extra convoy to go out to Bagram and back, when I needed to drive my commander around Kabul. We did more than 100 trips outside the wire, and I would usually be the driver, or I’d be in the tactical command position in the SUV. Nothing focuses the mind like knowing people in your unit are trusting you with their lives.
You announced you were gay in June 2015 in the South Bend Tribune, shortly after the RFRA debacle, becoming the first openly gay elected executive official in the state. Did RFRA influence your decision at all?
No. You’re just ready when you’re ready. If any one event in my life prompted me to prepare to do it when I did, it was coming home from my deployment, actually. Coming home with a new awareness that you only really get to be one person.
You fought with Mike Pence during the RFRA mess. Now he’s vice president and could one day become president. What do you make of that?
If you’re from Indiana, you probably already know: Mike Pence is a super nice guy when you’re in the room with him. But his worldview that cigarettes don’t kill and climate change is a myth and people just get up in the morning and decide whether they are gay or not doesn’t align with the reality that we live in. That one-party rule, that ideologically driven management of our state—I’m worried that our whole country is about to get a dose of that, and it’s not been good for our community.
Evan Bayh once said that the key to Indiana is to know that it’s a conservative state, yes, but on fiscal issues, not necessarily social issues. Is he right?
I’m not sure I would divvy it up in quite that way, actually. I say that because I think economic justice is an issue that a lot of people take seriously in this part of the country and certainly the area around South Bend. I think he’s right when he says that, “We’re not conservative according to a simple pattern that would predict how everybody here votes.”
You wrote an essay about Bernie Sanders back in 2000, as a senior in high school, winning the national JFK Profiles in Courage Essay Contest. You were a Bernie Bro before Bernie Bros existed?
I don’t want to sound like a hipster who claims to have discovered the band or the coffee before it was cool, but yeah. He was definitely not a household name. In fact, he came to speak when I was in college, and I think they were going to line me up to introduce him after that had happened, or to meet him or something, and my grandmother died that weekend, so I never had the chance to meet him. I wrote about Bernie Sanders because I thought he demonstrated the kind of courage that was discussed in Profiles in Courage, the book.
What TV show about politics best describes your experience as mayor?
I’m still processing an experience that I had one Sunday. I was leaving a Martin Luther King Day memorial service in a church on the west side in South Bend. As I left, I saw somebody standing over a young person who was convulsing in the lawn of the house nearby. I called 911 thinking the kid was having a seizure. I turned around and saw there were two other kids on the curb, who were also unconscious or vomiting, and that’s when I realized that this was an overdose situation. I had my hand on one kid. There’s a guy standing with his foot against the other kid’s back to try to keep him from rolling on his back. And I’ve got my hand on that kid’s shoulder, making sure he was breathing and trying to make sure I could keep rolling him to the right side—as he’s convulsing—so he didn’t asphyxiate. His eyes rolled up into his head and he was foaming at the mouth.
So, back to the TV question. In the office, we joke that there are Parks and Rec days, and there’s the occasional Veep day. Then, once in a while, there’s a day that’s like something out of The Wire.