It’s weird when a presidential campaign launches in your hometown
I grew up in Lawrence, the town where Elizabeth Warren kicked off her presidential bid. But the campaign rally cast a different light on a city I know.
Last year, a president dissed my hometown in front of a crowd of New Hampshire people. This year, a presidential candidate launched her campaign in my hometown. In between those events, the city suffered one of the worst tragedies in its history, when a series of gas explosions forced thousands of households in the city and two neighboring towns out of their homes for three nights and left them without gas for weeks after the disaster. It’s been a crazy year for Lawrence, a small city in northern Massachusetts.
Lawrence — or Lawtown, as the locals dubbed it — is a hard-luck milltown with a working class Latino and immigrant community. It’s a place white people denigrate with xenophobic stereotypes; a place they elevate to the level of boogeyman and regional menace. It’s a city of art and talented kids who need more than what the city might have to offer them; it’s a city full of dark paths for the least fortunate and most pressed youth to follow when they can’t access a better road. It’s a town where the good news gets a blurb or two and it’s a town where the bad news gets the front page. At least, that’s how it always felt when I was growing up, and sometimes still feels.
So it was a surprise when Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren announced her presidential campaign in Lawrence. That kind of news is different for the city, but Lawrence has certainly been making political headlines on the national stage since Trump became President. For example, Paul Ryan visited the New Balance factory a year ago to promote his tax reform bill — seeing symbolic value in the made-in-America sneaker company based in a working class town. And of course, Warren sees a similar symbolic value in Lawrence.
For example, the venue she chose was the Everett Mills, the location of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. Sure enough, Warren’s speech used this history as its foundation, describing how thousands of textile workers organized themselves to win better wages and working conditions. Growing up in Lawrence, I’ve heard the story more times than I can count and have done a handful of school reports on the strike, which was led by determined immigrant women. Every labor day, the strikes are celebrated at the Bread and Roses festival, held in the Lawrence Common. Though the strike is well-known, I still never thought the local history would get this kind of stage.
“The story of Lawrence is a story about how real change happens in America. It’s a story about power — our power — when we fight together,” said Warren. It’s a truth I’ve known since middle school, even when white kids from neighboring towns would call my hometown dirty and dangerous.
Another advantage for Warren: Lawrence has a long been considered a city of immigrants. The most recent waves, from the 70s and 80s, have been Dominicans, as well as Puerto Rican migrants. If you want to set yourself apart from a xenophobic commander-in-chief, a city like Lawrence sends a message — especially since President Donald Trump Trump has mentioned the town by name. Last March, in a speech delivered at New Hampshire rally, he linked Lawtown’s sanctuary city status to the opioid epidemic, citing a Dartmouth study that cited Lawrence as the main sources of fentanyl that ended up in New Hampshire (omitting the other named source, nearby Lowell). It’s an old move in regional politics — New Hampshire governor John Sununu made similar comments about my hometown, which is just a few miles south of the state border. Lawrence, unfortunately, has long had a reputation for being a “drug mall,” a place where out-of-towners and out-of-staters can score, and the current addiction crisis hasn’t helped. But Warren still picked the city for her campaign launch, despite the bad reputation — maybe it’s another jab at Trump.
There also seems to be a slight “giving back” factor in the location choice. After all, Lawrence is a reliable Democratic stronghold: the city was one of very few in Massachusetts that voted against popular Republican Governor Charlie Baker in last year’s election.
But more relevant is the fact Lawrence suffered a catastrophe this past September. A series of gas explosions and fires hit Lawrence and the neighboring towns of Andover and North Andover. Thousands of households were evacuated from Thursday September 13 until the following Sunday. Most of those affected lost their gas for weeks. Out of the three towns, Lawrence was hit hardest — the entire southern half of the city had to be evacuated.
Warren didn’t mention the gas disaster, though. The omission was a bit odd, especially since she was part of a Congressional panel that visited Lawrence and grilled the executives of Columbia Gas, the utility company responsible for the disaster. Of course, she didn’t mention a lot of the bullshit Lawrence has gone through, the outside pressures like disinvestment, punishing welfare reforms, and discrimination that made it even tougher for these new stewards of the fading post-industrial city. There was tribute to Irish and Slavic immigrants, and a call for common sense immigration, but no mention of how Latino migrants and immigrants inherited struggling towns like Lawrence.
In truth, despite the Bread and Roses talk, the campaign kick-off felt like a generic political rally. Warren didn’t even mention those gas explosions. She barely alluded to the very Latinx population of the city, full of first and second generation immigrants from DR. And while there was some diversity in the crowd of thousands, it was still pretty white. Even before her speech began, I couldn’t help but notice how safe and generic the background was for the event: “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Everyday People.” Not necessarily bad songs, overall. But it wasn’t the sounds of Lawrence: hip hop, bachata, música urbana. The rally featured the kind of inoffensive music you hear on repeat at retail jobs. (Though Warren’s choice for her official campaign song, Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” is solid.) It was a bit cookie cutter — it could have happened in any community around the country — and I suppose, given the national broadcast, that was the point.
It took place in Lawrence, but that doesn’t mean it was for Lawrence. And it’s not like that’s inherently wrong — she’s not running for mayor, not running for governor, she’s running for President of the whole country, and she’s gonna need to win over a lot more than a milltown in the Merrimack Valley. And her speech was broad and touched on many important issues, which affect Lawrencians and struggling folks across the nation: immigration reform, union membership, an end lobbying, correcting the lasting effects of housing discrimination. Healthcare, taxing the ultra-rich, higher wages — there was something for everyone. The rally set the town for the rest of her campaign — no other candidate is as focused on policy as she is (even if she doesn’t go far enough to the left for many Bernie Sanders supporters).
So I understand that it was about more than Lawrence because it had to be. But a weird thing happens when a presidential candidate launches a campaign in your hometown: the landscape that’s so fully-formed and familiar and set in your mind is warped into the packaging of another person’s message. Lawrence might fit Warren’s message better than it fit Paul Ryan’s, but you can’t help but notice the wrinkles of the wrapping job.
Even the speakers list seemed to clash with some of her messaging. Three out of the six speakers before Warren were people of color, and they all had to share the stage together at the same time. Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, and Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu were rousing speakers — Wu was even a student of Warren’s at Harvard Law before — but the trio seemed there mostly to set the stage for the federal politicians who followed. (They also had to endure technical difficulties, when their microphone died near the end of Tompkins’s speech.)
It might be a missed opportunity, since you’d think Wu has the kind of story Democrats would seek to elevate. She was the first woman of color to sit as the city council president, and doesn’t shy away from ambitious thinking around economic equity: earlier this month, she penned a Boston Globe piece arguing the Hub’s public transit system should be free. She serves on a Boston city council that hosts a record number of women and people of color. Additionally, her fellow city councilor Ayanna Pressley made national news for unseating incumbent Michael Capuano in a Congressional race, becoming the first black congresswoman from the Bay State. The big knock on her career, though, is that the city council is woefully underpowered compared to the city’s mayor. Maybe that’s another reason for the lower billing.
The honor of introducing Warren ultimately went to the newest model of New England’s favorite political dynasty, Rep. Joe Kennedy III, a move that likely appealed more to establishment Democrats in New England (and beyond) than any blue collar locals. Kennedy noted he represented Commonwealth towns similar to Lawrence, like Fall River, but he had less connection to Lawtown than the preceding two speakers: Sen. Ed Markey, whose father is from Lawrence, and Rep. Lori Trahan, whose district includes Lawrence. While Kennedy’s speech praised Warren as a champion of the poor and focused on economic injustice, I’m not sure hearing a Kennedy languish about the trials facing the working class resonates for today’s young voters the way it did 40 years ago for Boomers.
Still, Lawrencians in the crowd were fired up and the venue said as much as her script.
The event resonated with Flavia Jiminian, for example. Jiminian has lived in Lawrence for 29 years, after emigrating from the Dominican Republic. She told me Warren’s campaign launch showed solidarity with the working class, and set her apart from Trump.
“Donald Trump started his campaign attacking immigrants. Warren is starting her campaign embracing immigrants,” she said. Jiminian also said she didn’t pay much attention to politics until Trump won — now she’s more active, motivated by concern for her kids and grandchildren.
Trump’s attacks on the immigrant community are boilerplate by this point. From his infamous speech about Mexicans that launched his presidential bid, to the travel bans, to repealing DACA and his tantrums about a $5.7 billion border wall, the president campaigned and governed with immigrants in his crosshairs.
Dan Rivera certainly appreciated the change in the newscycle, telling a WBZ reporter: “From draped with caution tape to draped with bunting, it’s a nice transition for us.”
“A potential presidential candidate is not something you see everyday in your hometown,” said Juan Gonzalez, a Lawrence firefighter who has lived in the city since 1982. Gonzalez’s own home was affected by the gas incident — his family lost heat for a month and a half. He said he was pleased with Warren’s current run as a senator.“She’s been in Lawrence many times including during the gas emergency. I wish her the very best.”
Jim Blatchford, a lifelong Lawrencian, said the event showed Lawrence was “more than just a headline” but a key player in U.S. history. “It’s an honor, really, to really share the city’s history and share how impactful we [Lawrence] were in American history,” he said.
Warren has positioned herself as an underdog, which isn’t a surprise. First off, there’s 10 other candidates vying for the party’s ticket, and more are expected to enter the race — it’s an uphill battle for many candidates. And then there’s the fact Warren’s announcement came in the wake of her apology to Cherokee Nation for her past claims of Native American ancestry — and for a media stunt involving a DNA test that found she was six generations removed from any indigenous American ancestor.
In the end, whoever wins the Democratic nomination will have the historically difficult challenge of defeating an incumbent president. But supporters like Eddie Rosa, a self-described “hometown kid,” felt confident the country was moving away from Trump’s politics and that Warren’s message would resonate. Blatchford noted that Trump has been fundraising since his first day in office, but he still liked her odds. He also noted Lawrence has had a run in with a President before: Teddy Roosevelt visited the South Lawrence train station in 1902. He hopes Warren’s event will become a similar milestone.
As for myself, I wonder if I put too much stock in what an event like this means for Lawrence. I doubt other candidates will come through and show the city this much love. I doubt local and regional politics will improve because of this single campaign event. The news cycle will continue, the good and bad parts of Lawrence will continue, and the city’s struggles won’t fade just because of one day of good press. But the city got to shine for one day, got to flex its history, and I think it was a good day for the city, regardless of what happens to Warren’s campaign.
And Lawrence was soon in the campaign’s rearview mirror. After all, the last big advantage offered by Lawrence is that it’s just a 15 minute drive from the New Hampshire border — and Warren spent the rest of her afternoon campaigning in the Granite State.