Suburbanite stereotypes more misperception than reality in Central Ohio

Bob Vitale
About 500 people at Gahanna City Hall kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds during a candlelight vigil on June 11 to remember George Floyd and other lives lost at the hands of police.

As she campaigned last fall to become the first Democrat on Hilliard’s City Council in 30 years, it became something of a running joke for Cynthia Vermillion.

“We would routinely run into Democrats who thought they were the only Democrat in their neighborhood,” she said. “Some of them would say they’d rather not put a sign in their yard. They didn’t want to call attention to themselves.”

“It’s definitely a misperception out here,” Vermillion said of the lingering stereotype of suburbanites as urban refugees who’ve white-picket-fenced themselves off from the world.

It’s a misperception that lingers all the way to Washington, where President Donald Trump clings to a vision of suburban America that seems stuck in the so-serene lyrics of The Monkees’ 1967 song, “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”

Twice in the last three weeks, Trump has tweeted warnings to “suburban housewives” — first that Democratic nominee Joe Biden “will destroy your neighborhood and your American dream,” and then that “low income housing would invade their neighborhood.”

It’s wrong on so many levels.

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First, U.S. Census data show large majorities of women in Franklin County suburbs are part of the labor force outside their homes. Statistics count everyone older than 16, so the category includes retirees and large numbers of full-time high school and college students. Still, census estimates from 2019 show more than 60% of women in 13 of 15 suburbs work outside their homes. In nine suburbs, women own a third or more of local businesses.

Second, as many critics point out, Trump’s tweets about dream-destroying invasions of American suburbs are more than a racist dog whistle to an all-white suburban America that doesn’t exist. Franklin County suburbs are still overwhelmingly white — more than 90% in Grandview Heights and Worthington — but neighborhoods everywhere are growing more diverse.

Reynoldsburg, for instance, was 85% white in 2000. Census estimates in 2019 put that figure at 61.5%.

“It’s not the 1960s, where it was just white Americans who were in the suburbs,” said Reynoldsburg City Council President Angie Jenkins, one of three Black women and one of four people of color elected to local office last fall.

And Trump’s appeal to “suburban housewives"? “I don’t know who that person is," Jenkins said. "It sounds like June Cleaver or somebody.”

Finally, while the idea of solidly Republican suburbs isn’t quite as retro, it’s also faded into history. In 1988, George H.W. Bush was the last GOP candidate for president who carried every suburb of Franklin County. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton defeated Bush only in Bexley and Grandview Heights.

By 1996, Clinton had won enough suburban votes to tip Franklin County into the Democratic column for the first time since 1964. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won majorities in all but four suburbs — Canal Winchester, Grove City, Groveport and New Albany — and carried Franklin County by almost 24 percentage points.

The political shift has since extended to the Franklin County Courthouse, where Democrats hold all but two non-judicial offices. In 2018, voters elected Democrats in nine of the county’s 10 Ohio House districts, and in 2019 Democrats won seats on more suburban city councils.

Merisa Bowers, a Democrat who was elected last fall to the council in Gahanna, sees a turnover in family housing from older residents to Millennials who chose the suburb not to get away from Columbus but because it’s so close to the city. The choice of suburban school districts isn’t an indictment of Columbus City Schools, but a reflection of Ohio’s “screwed-up funding” for districts, she said.

Instead of bending to conservative tradition, suburban residents have instead begun changing their communities.

Black Lives Matter demonstrations have extended this summer into Bexley, Hilliard, Gahanna and other suburbs. Westerville, Worthington, Reynoldsburg and other suburbs have taken up LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances in the last year.

“I don’t want to pat ourselves on the back too much. We still have a lot of work to do,” Bowers said. But Gahanna is paying attention to — and reporting publicly on — racial disparities in traffic stops and other policing. It has also employed implicit bias training within city government.

Bhuwan Pyakurel cried the day he became a U.S. citizen in 2015, because he felt like he belonged. He has voted in every election since and was elected to the Reynoldsburg City Council last fall. 

Since arriving as a refugee in 2009 — he grew up in a Nepalese refugee camp after the government in Bhutan began expelling ethnic and religious minorities in the 1990s — he and his family have lived in Colorado Springs, Denver, Columbus and now Reynoldsburg. His father wanted to be near other Bhutanese people, and Reynoldsburg has a growing community.

Pyakurel hesitates to compare Trump to the king in Bhutan, because he has faith in this country’s rule of law. He doesn’t hesitate, though, to say he considers Trump a threat to the ideals he loves about America.

Still, he always tells his daughter to look for something positive in every situation, so he did what many good parents would do when she asked him recently to name something positive about President Trump.

“Give me an hour,” he responded.

Tina Cottone, left, Deryck Richardson, center, and Cynthia Vermillion on Main Street in Hilliard last year. The three Democrats were campaigning to become the first Democrats to win a spot on the Hilliard City Council since 1989. Vermillion is now on the council.