It’s a big day in Westerville. The suburb becomes the center of American politics on Tuesday night as 12 Democratic candidates take the stage for the latest presidential primary debate.
Westerville is a city in transition. After Republican presidential candidates won the city in 2008 and 2012, Democrat Hillary Clinton was able to flip the city in 2016, and convincingly so.
President Donald Trump may have won the state of Ohio, but his message didn’t win a single precinct in Westerville.
One of the precincts where Trump came close to 50% runs along the city’s southern edge. It’s suburban with long, gently curving roads dotted with two story homes, the sort of place where the backyards aren’t fenced and kids play in the street.
“You know, like on our street we have a lot of young people that have just moved in and then older people and stuff like that,” says Don Miller. “Like, middle-of-the-road type thing, and we’re still open to all views and stuff like that. It’s not like we’re all Republican, all Democrat.”
Miller and other residents talked about how politics at the neighborhood level prioritizes civility and effectiveness. Those are the reflections of Westerville they hope the candidates take away from their visit.
Dick Bickerstaff drew a distinction between that and politics at the national level, where he sees leaders talking past one another.
“If you get bogged down with that, and the only answer is the other person like you is an idiot,” Bickerstaff says, throwing up his hands. “I don’t think Westerville is like that. I think there’s a more mellow kind of context, streets get fixed, stuff happens, our electricity doesn’t go out.”
When it comes to issues, residents voice concerns about the same topics that dominate U.S. politics, with health care topping the list. Education, climate change and infrastructure come up, too.
Tuesday’s primary debate isn’t the only time in recent memory that Westerville found itself in the national spotlight. Last year, Democrat Danny O’Connor narrowly lost a closely-watched special election and then a general election for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District. The GOP-dominated district, now represented by Rep. Troy Balderson, stitches together a swath of rural and suburban areas including Westerville.
Adrian Harvey suggests the Democratic Party’s showing in that pair of races might explain the decision to host a debate in Westerville.
“That district had never been that close,” she says. “And I think that that is telling about Ohio, that it has been a swing state, but there are a lot of pockets of blue, and [that] could be moving that way.”