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March 27, 2012

Politics of residency blows with the wind

When it comes to legal requirements about where you have to live to be able to be elected and represent millions of people, we’re consistent on one thing in this country — inconsistency.

Yes, U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar is being taken to task for not physically spending most of his waking hours, or at least his non-working hours, in Indiana. Since 1977, he has stayed in hotels when he returned to Indiana, and he recently was called out by the media for having taxpayers foot the bill. He repaid more than $4,000 in hotel bills he should have paid out of pocket all that time.

But at the end of the day, there are a few things apparent about the issue of Lugar’s residency — or the residency of any candidate running for Congress.

The first is that Indiana attorneys general have ruled that he was breaking no law and can legally represent the state as well from a Motel 6 as he can from a townhouse. Is he really “out of touch” with Indiana voters because he’s served in Washington for 36 years and hasn’t kept what would virtually be a vacation home back here in Indiana?

That’s a question voters can decide in May and/or November, but the reality is that holding candidates accountable for their residency is an issue with changing importance. As political winds blow, it depends on who you’re backing and when you’re backing them.

Let’s take for instance former Sen. Evan Bayh. When he first ran for Indiana Secretary of State in the 1980s, Republicans took him to task for living in Washington D.C. But they lost a challenge to that claim in part because “home” is where you vote as much as where you do your laundry, eat your meals or take your Sunday afternoon naps.

The District of Columbia wasn’t set up by the forefathers as a state.

By design, it was meant to be a place where Americans from every state could come to mutually live and work for the betterment of the country. And that’s exactly what thousands of members of Congress, not to mention presidents and civil service government employees of both parties, have done for more than 200 years.

If we really think Lugar is out of touch based solely on residency, what about the Republicans nationwide who pushed for former presidential candidate Alan Keyes to go to Illinois and run for the U.S. Senate against a fellow named Obama? Several minor leaguers called up by the Chicago White Sox and Cubs after Sept. 1 for a brief taste of Major League Baseball had spent more time in Illinois than Keyes, yet Republicans supported his entry into the race and put millions behind him.

And then there’s Hillary Clinton and Robert F. Kennedy. Both candidates might have been out of touch with New York voters in some eyes, but both moved to the Empire State to run for the U.S. Senate — and won. Let’s add to that point a Republican name, Chris Chocola, who ran for the current 2nd Congressional District that includes Logansport and served four years in Congress — without a permanent residence in the district.

In the earlier stages of our country, candidates known as “carpetbaggers” were allowed and even encouraged to run for Congress in districts they had never lived in because new states were added to the union every few years, and new states needed people in Washington who were “in touch” with the way the country was being run. This no doubt encouraged political opportunism that still exists, even if we never add another state to our democracy. That segment of federal election law is an enabling exception that has probably outlived its usefulness.

In weighing the issue of residency in Lugar’s case or any other, we also have to think about the other end of the spectrum. What if elected officials spent more time in places other than Washington and didn’t cast a vote that allowed their constituents to be “in touch” with decisions on issues? Countless members of Congress have spent hours on the campaign trail or on junkets to other countries at taxpayer expense. Yet, because our elected officials don’t make it back home for the chicken dinner circuit or a Lincoln Day or Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in our county, we take it for granted that they’re probably working on something important in the nation’s capital.

The only residency requirement that really matters is that of Indiana voters. Ultimately, they decide what candidates are best in touch with them, regardless of their age, address, religion, creed or color.

Ironically, the candidate Indiana voters last elected to enforce that right wasn’t even a resident of the town he claimed to represent on its council.

Residency matters, at least in that case. Whether it matters that much to voters in Lugar’s current race with Richard Mourdock remains to be seen.

• Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached through the newspaper at ptnews@pharostribune.com.

 

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