Is the Republican candidate for governor, Jim Keet, eligible to run?
A reader on our Arkansas Blog raised this question last week, pointing to the Arkansas Constitution. It says, "No person shall be eligible to the office of Governor except a citizen of the United States, who shall have attained the age of thirty years, and shall have been seven years a resident of this state."
Jim Keet is 61. Born in Missouri, he came to Arkansas in 1975 to work in the restaurant business and eventually was elected to terms in both the Arkansas House and Arkansas Senate.
He has been a resident of the state for well more than seven years, all told. But he has not been a resident of Arkansas for the last seven years.
Keet became a registered voter in Florida in 2003, after moving to the Florida Panhandle to manage Barnhill's Buffet, a restaurant chain. He struck a deal to sell the chain, for an undisclosed amount, in 2005. He continued to be a legal resident of Gulf Breeze, Fla., and voted in Florida elections.
Keet told me he stayed in Florida after the restaurant chain sold because two children remained in school in Florida and he was trying to sell his house there. He did have continuing business interests here.
"Anybody who ever asked, I'd always say I'm here [Florida] on a mission, but Arkansas is my home."
Keet added that his decision to settle in Florida – and remain there after the sale of his restaurant investment – had nothing to do with taxes. Florida has no state income or capital gains tax.
Keet moved back to Little Rock in early 2009 and began working on opening the Taziki's Greek restaurant. He registered to vote in Arkansas in January 2010.
Voting registration was one of the factors considered by the Arkansas Supreme Court when it rejected a challenge to Bill Halter's eligibility to run for lieutenant governor in 2006. (The eligibility requirement is the same as that for governor.) Halter had been away from Arkansas for years, many of them working for the Clinton administration. The Supreme Court wrote: "[T]he many actions taken by... Halter to retain his connection to Arkansas, including voting in Arkansas, maintaining an Arkansas driver's license, and filing Arkansas income taxes, do not demonstrate an intent to abandon his residency in Arkansas, nor an intent to establish residency in any other state. ..."
Keet can't produce the same sort of supporting evidence, beyond his professed general intent. So then comes the question of whether the seven years of residency must immediately precede a candidacy for governor. The state Supreme Court dodged that issue in the Halter case:
"In reaching this decision, we need not address plaintiff's additional argument that the trial court erred in concluding that Halter was not required to have an actual place of abode in ARKANSAS for the seven years 'immediately preceding' the election. As we uphold the trial court's finding that Halter never abandoned his domicile in Arkansas, we must necessarily conclude that Halter clearly met the seven-year requirement in Ark. Const. art. 6, § 5, as amended, irrespective of whether those seven years must be spent in Arkansas in the years immediately preceding the election or in any given seven years."
I'm sympathetic to the cumulative residency argument, but I'm not the Supreme Court. Keet, for his part, said through a spokesman that he is "fully qualified" and "easily meets the legal requirements."