Columns » Warwick Sabin

See where I'm coming from?


Is it important to you that your elected officials come from the places they represent, or even live there? This is a question that is becoming more difficult to answer, as American democratic tradition is assaulted by forces of ideology, modernity, and political expediency. When it comes to issues of origin and residency in politics, we are decidedly schizophrenic. Just look at what has happened in the last couple of weeks. In the quirky mountain hamlet of Eureka Springs, the city council booted one of its own members, Penny Carroll, for temporarily residing in Ward 2 when she was supposed to be representing Ward 1. Carroll says that she continued to own property in Ward 1 while she lived with her business partner in Ward 2. Have you ever been to Eureka Springs? It is hard to imagine that Carroll lost touch with her constituents when she wandered into the adjoining ward. At the same time, a Democratic state legislative candidate from Rogers, Robbyn Tumey, filed a lawsuit alleging that her Republican opponent, Timothy Hutchinson, had not lived long enough in the district he is running to represent. The state Constitution stipulates that legislative hopefuls have to reside in the district for at least a year, but records show that Hutchinson switched his voter registration only last October, and moved into a home there in April. It should be noted, however, that this is another case of adjoining constituencies. Hutchinson changed his residency from District 94 to District 95. The idea that Carroll or Hutchinson are not qualified to be representatives on the basis of residency seems even more incredible at a time when radio talk show host Alan Keyes is moving from Maryland to Illinois to run for a U.S. Senate seat. That's not to say that Keyes is wrong for seeking public office in a state where he has never lived. It's perfectly legal for him to do so, and Illinois voters might decide they like him. After all, a majority of New Yorkers are satisfied with the performance of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who established residency there just in time to qualify for the ballot in 2000. The extreme local nature of the disputes in Arkansas (quibbling over a matter of yards) compared to the macro considerations involved in the Keyes and Clinton cases (differences of hundreds of miles) suggests that Americans are more than a little conflicted on this issue. On first glance, the differences could be regional. Possibly Arkansas, as a provincial Southern rural state, cares more about identity and origin than the more cosmopolitan and diverse states of the Midwest and Northeast. We have elected non-native politicians to high office - most notably Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller (originally from New York) and U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder (originally from Oregon) - but even they spent considerable time here and adopted Arkansas sensibilities before gaining the confidence of voters. Arkansas is a place where traditions live a little longer than in most other places, and the practice of making residency a requirement for being an elected representative is an important American tradition. It is rooted in our history as an impressively large and disparate country with unique regional interests that were neither abstract nor easily understood. For instance, in the 1800s you had to be from Colorado to speak legitimately about mining issues there. These days, a "listening tour" will suffice. Still, another typical American characteristic has always been a counterweight to the significance of origin and place: our hunger for freedom and mobility. Immigrants were attracted to our nation because it offered a fresh start and a chance to redefine themselves. Advances in communications and transportation mean that Americans move around the country more than ever before, and there are fewer distinctions among regions. It doesn't take as long for outsiders to be welcomed into a community and adopt its identity. Furthermore, our modern culture makes allowances for easy transitions. Athletes try their hands at different sports, pop singers become actors, and CEOs will trade industries at the drop of a hat. In this environment, many politicians have to come to the conclusion that they should merely locate the constituency that is most likely to elect them. After that, it's just a question of learning the key issues and mouthing the talking points. That said, all of the recent developments relating to elected officials and residency come down to politics and ideology. In Eureka Springs and Rogers, it's about using legal technicalities to beat an adversary. In Illinois and New York, it's about finding candidates who fit a certain profile, because for people who see the Senate as merely a collective of red and blue votes, it's important to tip the balance one way or the other on the big national issues that matter to them. Less important in that equation is whether residents have a day-to-day advocate who understands their local concerns. As with most things, it helps to apply a little common sense. I'll take as a representative someone who's been around long enough to know a place. That could be someone who just moved in from the next ward, but not from the next state.

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