Another Debate, Another Lack of Urban Topics

Caricatures of the candidates with a city — Denver, site of an earlier debate — as the not-talked-about backdrop. Credit: DonkeyHotey on Flickr

Sure, there were plenty of eye-opening moments in last night’s presidential town hall debate. Mitt Romney claimed to have had “binders full of women” to hire when serving as Massachusetts governor. President Obama, perhaps heeding the worried calls of his supporters, brought up his opponent’s “47 percent” gaffe. And moderator Candy Crowley actually did some fact checking.

But for urbanists, once again the spectacle left something to be desired.

In fact, neither candidate uttered the word “city.” At all. Go ahead, check this debate transcript from ABC News. The search function will bring you only to a reference to “electricity” (second page, for you doubters out there).

As for the first debate, in Denver earlier this month, the word was only spoken during introductory remarks.

Forgive me if this is starting to sound old. Urban advocates have raised this complaint many times before: During national campaigns, when pundits and politicos are bickering over everything from reproductive health to drilling for oil to the debt ceiling, issues specifically related to cities get the short shrift.

Republicans hardly ever talk about urban America anymore (to their detriment, some observers say, though others disagree). Though this year’s Democratic National Convention had a roster full of big-city mayors, their time in the spotlight largely yielded only sentimental personal narratives — not much about what they do to make cities function daily, and not much about the needs of the people they serve. This despite some recent, game-changing policies on the part of speakers like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and San Antonio’s Julián Castro. Yes, Philly’s own Michael Nutter missed the opportunity as well.

It’s not like there weren’t moments last night when either candidate could have, at least in passing, addressed the concerns of the country’s urban-dwellers. When a questioner brought up Obama’s pledge four years ago to “keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals,” the former Illinois senator used crime in Chicago as a jumping-off point to explain his administration’s position.

There was even an instance where Obama could have mined his past as a community organizer to address the factors that cause urban crime in the first place — this is when Romney tried to place the blame on single parents and children born out of wedlock. Instead, the president said a few words about the importance of education and something about Romney pandering to the National Rifle Association.

Hell, during the discussion on economic growth, Obama could have turned to the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to defend his record. Established during his first term, the partnership has done wonders for economic development in urban neighborhoods. Libertarians and Tea Partiers probably wouldn’t take too kindly to the bureaucracy, but they’re not the type to vote for Obama anyway. So why not reassure urban voters that you’ve been fighting for their needs, and name-drop one of the administration’s major accomplishments?

You wouldn’t know it from watching campaign coverage on cable news channels, but urban issues actually are playing a role in this election. Just this past spring brought us the mire that was the House transportation bill debate. And remember in August, when Republicans officially rejected Agenda 21? With one candidate threatening to defund not only Amtrak but the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the other all but silent on his urban achievements, a lot is at stake for U.S. cities this November.

So c’mon, candidates and commentators. All we want is a little acknowledgement.

Plug! Since you likely won’t get anything close to your fill on national urban policy from watching the debates, we at Next American City suggest you read Urban Nation, a regular column on the matter by NAC federal correspondent Harry Moroz.

Tags: mayorsbarack obamasustainable citieshudrahm emanuelmichael nuttergun violence2012 presidential electionmitt romneyjulian castro