Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
From candidate hometowns to international crisis spots, here are all the cities mentioned by Democratic presidential contenders at this week’s debates.
The most electric moment in the two nights of Democratic debates in Miami this week involved a candidate talking about where she grew up. That was Senator Kamala Harris, who lived in the lower-income “flatlands” of Berkeley, California, as a young child. There, thanks that city’s then-pioneering school integration efforts, she rode a bus up to Thousand Oaks Elementary School, where she attended classes with the children of the city’s more affluent white residents.
“You know,” Harris said, turning to former Vice President Joe Biden, “there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
It was an anecdote that shrewdly doubled as a show of how her origins shaped her belief in government and a way to lay into Biden, whose opposition to bus integration programs of that era has come back to haunt him. Biden responded by calling busing “a local decision” and insisted that “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.” (Not helpful, pundits agreed.) Then he took a dig at Harris’s previous job as a prosecutor, mentioning his brief turn working part-time as a public defender. Biden didn’t mention the city by name, but Wilmington, Delaware is where he began his political career in 1969; he described how it went up in flames after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. that year.
On a presidential debate stage, place matters. With a slew of candidates jockeying for breakout moments and, in many cases, introducing themselves to a national audience for the first time, regional identifiers are one of the best sorting mechanisms voters get. But presidential aspirants must balance playing up their hometown roots to tell stories and display their relatability with the need to make sweeping gestures toward national reconciliation. Many reeled off campaign stops to build credibility with unfamiliar regions. Some places appeared as political touchstones, like the locations of recent mass shootings, or synecdoches like “Washington” and “Wall Street.” Certain candidates repeatedly highlighted geography as destiny—but it may be just as telling who abandoned their atlases. We kept a tab on all the places the candidates name-checked over the two nights in Miami. Here’s that map for the U.S. (with some assorted extras); down below are other global references.
For the present and former mayors in the race, hometowns became stages for leadership dramas. Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, made hay from his industrial Midwest setting, where “folks who aren’t in the shadow of a factory are somewhere near a soy field,” he said. But South Bend also landed Mayor Pete in a heated exchange about police violence, when other candidates confronted with his latest municipal crisis: an officer-involved shooting of an unarmed black man. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, once mayor of Denver, leapt at the opportunity to tout the civilian oversight system set up in his city after a 2005 fatal police shooting. Denver, we later learned, is where Colorado Senator Michael Bennet also worked as a public school superintendent.
Senator Cory Booker also stood out for hailing Newark, New Jersey, where he was once mayor and where for many years he chose to live in a housing project. On gun safety in particular, Booker used his low-income, high-crime community again as evidence of living out policy issues: “I hope I’m the only one on this panel here that had seven people shot in their neighborhood just last week.”
Other candidates with experience as city executives spent far less time touting their ties to them. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio touted the accomplishments he’s made for the Big Apple’s working class—including creating a $15 minimum wage and universal pre-K program. But he spent less time highlighting his own roots in the city. (Perhaps that’s telling: De Blasio’s personality and intractability on certain issues have made him fairly unpopular locally.) Former secretary of housing Julian Castro, meanwhile, pointed out the energy transition he led as mayor of his native San Antonio, but reserved a bigger applause line for San Juan, Puerto Rico, pointing out the fact that his first campaign stop was in the hurricane-ravaged U.S. island.
Place-based appeals were a big part of former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s performance as he talked about his soul-searching travels around Lone Star territory: He gave props to Houston, Laredo, and Santa Fe, but failed to mention his native El Paso. Washington Governor Jay Inslee highlighted the progress he’s made in his state on climate and reproductive health, though didn’t speak to how the place has influenced his politics. Low-polling Maryland Congressman John Delaney barely mentioned his D.C.-suburb home turf, though he did note that he’s ”been with folks in Western Maryland”—a shorthand for “I can talk to conservatives,” who dominate the state’s sparsely populated hinterlands. Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur turned UBI hawk, mentioned a farmer he met in Iowa, though nary his own neighborhood in Manhattan.
If awards were handed out for such things, Tim Ryan, the congressman from Ohio, would probably snag Hometowniest Homie: Everything about the often-wide-eyed Buckeye State native’s debate performance, from his references to “forgotten communities” of the industrial Midwest (he called out Youngstown, Ohio, down the road from his birthplace Niles) to his hearty Great Lakes accent, reflected his pitch as the Democrat’s Rust Belt Guy for 2020. “I’ve had family members that have to unbolt a machine from the factory floor, put it in a box, and ship it to China,” he exclaimed when asked about the decline of American industry. Only in his closing statement did Ryan seem to acknowledge that economic adversity also exists outside Ohio. “There’s a tent city in L.A.,” he offered.
Notably untethered to her local roots but acutely interested in other points on the astral plane was self-help author/gift to late-night comedians Marianne Williamson, who once owned a New Age bookstore in her native Houston. (She did have a memorable line about calling up the prime minister of New Zealand.) Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, whose star moment came when she took Ryan to task about the war in Afghanistan, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who made a brief reference to her success in that blue state’s more-conservative districts, both played down the regions they represent.
But if there was an award for least-interested in “real” places in the U.S., it would be a tie: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren left the Bay State totally unmentioned, though she did raise her Oklahoma flag once in her closing statement. Never once did Warren mention a specific city or state outside the nation’s capital, but she did mention Washington, D.C. four times. The entire being of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders shouted out “Brooklyn,” but he didn’t actually invoke the borough of his origins, and spoke about Vermont just once. (He did go after “Wall Street” three times.) Albany-born New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand, whose political career was launched in Upstate New York, never spoke of a single specific place.
What does this say about the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination? A certain rootlessness is a common attribute of many modern-era national political figures. A lot of recent major candidates end up appearing to be From Nowhere: Nominees like Mitt Romney, John McCain, and John Kerry were more or less Omniregional White Guys, reared in and by the federal colossus, not any one place. While Donald Trump may be a thoroughly New York City creature, he must also be the most despised president in his place of birth in history; his only true hometown is the gilded archipelago of resort properties that his family owns.
On the other hand, though Barack Obama and George W. Bush retained tenuous connections to the places where they were born, regional signaling ended up being critical for those two. Perhaps partly due to the attention his Hawaiian birthplace garnered from right-wing “birthers,” Obama leaned heavily on his years living and organizing in Chicago’s South Side. Connecticut-born and Yale-educated Bush was permitted to effortlessly transform himself into a brush-clearing Texas rancher.
This year, the most important feature that Democrat voters are looking for in their party’s candidate is simple: their ability to defeat Trump. As this week’s debates showed, overemphasizing place can reduce contenders to caricature. But when it’s deployed strategically, telling stories through geography can also be a powerful platform for a candidate’s brand.