Since February, at least five Democratic presidential candidates have made a point of visiting Denmark, S.C. — a speck of a city so unknown that Google reported a surge in searches for it after it was mentioned on the national debate stage this summer.

Denmark, a three-stoplight city of about 3,000 people, has a few claims to fame. The American Telephone and Telegraph Co. building, which still stands, helped route the nation's first transcontinental call in 1922 when U.S. President Warren G. Harding phoned Cuban President Mario Garcia Menocal. It was also the birthplace of Americana artist Jim Harrison.

Denmark Mayor Gerald Wright is proud this place has proved somewhat immune to growth. "In early April, when the azaleas and the dogwoods are blooming, we are as pretty as any other," he said of the city about 50 miles south of the state capital.

But when presidential candidate Marianne Williamson referenced Denmark during a nationally televised presidential debate last month, she painted a different picture of the rural South Carolina city from her lectern in Detroit.

She characterized Denmark's ongoing water issue as the next Flint, Michigan. More broadly, she held it up as an example of the systemic link between racial inequality and environmental injustice that persists in America today.

"This is part of the dark underbelly of American society — the racism, the bigotry," Williamson said.

For Denmark, seeing its ongoing water issue magnified on a national level by presidential candidates brings a mixture of hope and fear: Hope that these politicians will make good on their promises to change things, and fear their community could become a short-lived political backdrop.

"That was one of our greatest concerns," said Deanna Miller-Berry, the founder of the grassroots group Denmark Citizens for Safe Water.

"But I'm very up-front and I'm very direct," she added. "Each time I meet with one of the candidates, I say the exact same thing: If you're coming in here just because it's election season, you can go ahead and leave now."

Twelve years ago, it was Dillon — another rural city in South Carolina — that was getting the attention of presidential candidates. The concern wasn't clean drinking water, but the nation's crumbling schools.

On the first day of school in 2007, Superintendent Ray Rogers agreed to give then-Sen. Barack Obama a tour of J.V. Martin Middle School. Built in 1896, the schoolhouse embodied the neglected schools of rural America, particularly in poverty-stricken and disproportionately black communities.

Reflecting on that tour now, Rogers admits he was worried about what the political spotlight would do.

"It could have cost me my job," Rogers said. "People don't want to hear how bad things are, but I was at the point in my career where I felt like I needed to tell the truth. No need to paint a picture that's not there. The kids were suffering, and we needed to do better."

In his first address as president, Obama cited J.V. Martin as proof that stimulus money was needed to replace falling-down schools. He called it "a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom." 

Rogers said the national publicity showed action was needed. In December 2007, local voters passed a penny sales tax to help replace the dilapidated school. When the recession hit and the county could not afford the higher interest rate associated with the money, the Obama administration's U.S. Department of Agriculture provided the district with a $3 million development grant and backing for a $60 million bond.

Back in Denmark, Miller-Berry said she's turning to the presidential hopefuls because she's given up on local leadership on the water issue.

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To date, Miller-Berry has met with eight Democratic presidential candidates: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, billionaire Tom Styer, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and Williamson.

Four of them — Booker, Sanders, Steyer and Williamson — have come to see Denmark's tainted water firsthand. More could be on the way.

She's talking to staffers with former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, along with former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who visited Denmark in April. 

The mayor, by contrast, has not had any facetime with the Democratic presidential candidates. The only contact White has had with any presidential candidate, he said, was a meeting with a representative from the Sanders campaign.

"To compare us with Flint, Michigan, is just preposterous, as far as I'm concerned," White said. "Has any good come of their visits? I'm not aware of anything that could be measured. I don't know what impact they've had, positive or negative."

Miller-Berry sees it differently.

"It's ignited hope," she said. "These candidates aren’t just coming once and leaving. They are actually coming, learning what's going on and developing a plan to not just help Denmark, but to do what I ask. I simply ask each one of these candidates: Will you help me connect the dots?"

Miller-Berry is planning a presidential candidate forum for mid-November or early December. She also sent a letter to President Donald Trump.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.

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