In praise of carpetbagging

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I expect you've heard that a woman who grew up in the Midwest, and spent most of her adulthood in the South, with a sojourn in the nation's capital, has been looking at some expensive real estate in New York's Westchester County. She also, not so incidentally, is considering a run for one of New York's US Senate seats.

Her political opponents cry "carpetbagger!" - an emotion-laden term that implies citizens would be ill-served if represented by some outsider. I ask, what's the problem?

No, I'm not writing to support Hillary Clinton's candidacy, which does not especially excite me. The issue, rather, is this: Is it really important that a state be represented in Washington by people raised up from the midst of that state's population?

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Oh, you say that a state's representatives should have a deep familiarity with the needs and interests of its people. Even though a US senator is dealing with issues at the national level, you say, the job also involves looking out for the needs of the folks back home.

Granted. A senator represents a particular set of constituencies with specific interests, and his or her job includes taking care of them, bringing home the pork, etc. A state wants its representatives in Washington to work on its behalf.

So, how long do you think it takes a bright man or woman to learn what it is that those constituents most want and need? Particularly given that these constituents are more than eager to make their wants known, both prior to their representatives being elected and, in a never-ending stream of mail and visitors, through the lobbying of their already-elected officials.

Yes, you may maintain, but it is one thing to know what the state's constituencies want and it is another to care. Better to put one's trust in a native son or daughter of the state, someone whose roots are in the native soil, whose kin still live on Main Street back home.

Well, let's set aside the question of how many of the fruits of those native soils that actually make it to the Senate are animated by a heartfelt commitment, derived from their roots, to the folks they grew up with. And let's ask instead: If we needed an attorney to represent us in some civil or criminal matter, would we refuse to hire a crackerjack lawyer just because he or she was a stranger?

No, we'd figure that even a stranger, once agreeing to take on the case, would be committed to doing his or her best to win for us. That's what the profession is about.

If that's so with a lawyer, why not with a senator? Why shouldn't a state hire the best advocate it can find to serve as its advocate in the Senate?

If you ask me, it is New York - with its loose residency requirements - that's smart and the other states that should be imitating the Empire State. But even New York has not taken full advantage of the possibilities of its approach.

A smart state, I'd suggest, would be actively going out to find and recruit the most able and most promising leaders in the country.

"We think you look like the next Daniel Webster, and we want your eloquence arguing our case on the Senate floor." Or, "We think you'll go far, and we want to get in on the ground floor, build a relationship with you, so when you become president, you'll know us and you'll be familiar with our concerns."

The carpetbaggers - those Northerners who went south to take advantage of the power vacuum immediately after the Civil War - were hated because they were not accountable to those people whose voices have come down to us through history, rendering "carpetbagging" a dirty word.

But if our democracy is working well enough to make elected officials truly accountable to those they represent, ability and character should count a lot more than residency.

And if our democracy is not creating such accountability, then residency gives us no assurance whatever that our officials, regardless of where they grew up, will truly represent our needs or interests or values.

*Andrew Bard Schmookler's latest book is 'Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America's Moral Divide' (M.I.T. Press). He writes from Broadway, Va.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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