Rahm's Residence and the Appeal of Absent Pols

Steve Chapman

10/21/2010 12:01:00 AM - Steve Chapman

To many people who dislike the Obama administration, Rahm Emanuel is the sordid embodiment of the Chicago Way. But to his enemies on the shores of Lake Michigan, he is to Chicago what Brett Favre is to Green Bay: a refugee, not a resident.

Having leased out his Northwest Side home after becoming White House chief of staff, Emanuel faces a potential lawsuit claiming he is ineligible to pursue his next ambition, becoming mayor of Chicago. The city code says you have to be a resident of the city for at least a year to run, and for the last couple of years, Emanuel has been bunking elsewhere.

Whether the argument will stand up in court is in doubt, since he has kept his Chicago voting registration and his Illinois driver's license, and since he clearly intended to return. But the dispute does make something clear: the silliness of residency requirements for public office.

Emanuel is not the only Chicago mayoral candidate who could be challenged on grounds of domicile. State Sen. James Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church on the South Side, owns a home in South Holland, which he says he bought for his father. Ald. Sandi Jackson, wife of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, has a place in Washington, where their children go to school.

But legal issues aside, why should we care where a candidate gets her mail and buys her groceries? The American tradition is on the side of indifference, which is right where it should be.

The Constitution takes a relaxed attitude on the subject. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are not required to live in the districts they represent, and some don't.

Democrat Melissa Bean has been elected three times from Illinois' Eighth District, where she can't vote. Democrat Luis Gutierrez of Chicago got elected while living in the Fourth District but later moved out. Democrat Mazie Hirono of Hawaii makes her home outside her congressional boundaries. And nobody cares.

U.S. senators are required to live in the states they represent -- as if that rule means anything. Hillary Clinton, who was raised in Illinois, educated in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and spent many years in the Arkansas governor's mansion, didn't run in any of those states. She ran in New York, and she won by a landslide.

She was following the 1964 example of Robert F. Kennedy, an import whose critics sent him carpetbags for his birthday, which he presumably took to his new office in Washington. In 2004, Alan Keyes decamped from Maryland to Illinois to run against an incumbent named Barack Obama. In each case, critics portrayed the candidates as opportunistic interlopers.

But the Constitution says to opportunistic interlopers: Y'all come! It requires only that a senator be an "inhabitant" of the relevant state by Election Day, which effectively means anyone can run anywhere. The framers chose not to impose a long-term residency requirement.

They were similarly laissez-faire about higher offices. The president and vice president must come from different states, according to the Constitution. But that didn't keep George W. Bush of Austin from picking Dick Cheney of Dallas as his 2000 running mate. Cheney changed his voting registration back to his native Wyoming, and the courts said that was good enough.

Stiff residency rules might have made sense in the 18th century, when travel was excruciatingly slow, communications were primitive and extensive first-hand knowledge of other places was hard to come by. But today, it's hard to argue that someone from Indiana couldn't understand the needs of Illinois well enough to hold office on this side of the Wabash River.

Come to think of it, some Illinoisans may be writing in Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels for governor this year. Locals might think the Prairie State could only benefit from seeking out leaders who keep a wary distance from our bogs of corruption. Likewise, we'd be happy to export many homegrown pols.

As a rule, Americans pay no attention to where a candidate lays his head as long as he approximates what they want as a leader. When a transplanted Yankee ran for president in 1992, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat, jeered, "George Bush claims to be from Texas. But someone who lives in Maine and stays in a Houston hotel room is called a tourist in Texas, not a Texan."

Texans got a good laugh out of that one. And Bush got their 32 electoral votes.

Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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