We Can’t Suffer Carpetbaggers

Those Americans who have an interest in taking back their government – that is, making sure their elected “representatives” actually represent their interests – have a serious problem. Ok, they have many problems, but there’s one that isn’t getting as much attention as it should.

This problem can best be defined as the carpetbagger problem. And it’s certainly not new. After all, it’s had its own word and everything since the 1800s. What is topical about the carpetbagger problem is its application to national Democratic Party politics and the way in which they affect House races.

As increasing sums of money pour into swing districts from all over the country (see Ravi’s excellent post on GA-6, and note the $5m that came from the DCCC alone), the Party apparatus and its ability to anoint and support a candidate is an ever juicier prize. The Party can put its finger on the scale and sway an entire district into selecting a primary candidate who doesn’t even live in that district, or worse yet, has never lived in that district.

Let’s pause here for a second and really take this in. Because I think that we’ve been so preoccupied with “winning” that we’ve lost sight of what “representative” really means (rep·re·sen·ta·tive, noun: a person chosen or appointed to act or speak for another or others). Cosmo Kramer once famously opined that “To rule the people, one must walk among them.” Whether it’s Del Boca Vista Phase III or a congressional district of 711,000 citizens, this advice is so glaringly obvious as to be oft-overlooked.

How could someone possibly be the best representative of a few hundred thousand people’s interests if that person doesn’t live with them, or has never lived with them? How could they have shared in their would-be constituents’ experiences, their successes, and their misfortunes?

The answer is, they can’t. So it’s time we get back to basics. “Representatives” aren’t elected to represent a party. They are elected to represent people. And I will consider the inability or unwillingness of the Democratic Party to identify and cultivate authentic, homegrown candidates in each and every single congressional district a major failure of the party itself. To say nothing of the absolute electoral travesty this failure creates in perfectly winnable swing districts. Organizations like The Arena certainly have a role to play. I’ll return to this in a moment.

Just a few examples of races already decided, and those yet to unfold:

  • NY-19 (2016 – LOSS): Zephyr Teachout – no history living in the district she ran to represent.

To be fair: Nothing to be fair about. Moved upstate from Brooklyn to run, no other connection to the district.

  • GA-6 (2017 – LOSS): Jon Ossoff – didn’t live in the district he ran to represent.

To be fair: Grew up in the 6th but didn’t reside there when running.

  • PA-7 (2018): 3 of 4 declared Democratic candidates – don’t live in the district.

To be fair: Although candidates live in Philly, not in the district, it is a heavily gerrymandered district that kind of resembles an ink blot, or maybe a really sick octopus. So not technically living there wouldn’t necessarily mean that one was not part of the community.

  • NY-19 (2018): at least 4 of 7 declared Democratic candidates don’t live or don’t work in the district.

To be fair: Some of these candidates grew up in the district and are moving back to run for office, but there are plenty of great candidates who are already a part of the community.

We shouldn’t be supporting candidates who don’t have real, authentic connections in their adult lives to the districts in which they are running.

The Arena is grappling with this issue now. Many members of the community have taken on the challenge from our Nashville Summit to “move home and run.” But we have an obligation to encourage and nurture only those with strong candidacies. Some are stronger  than others. Was a potential candidate away because of service – whether military, governmental, or charitable? That would be stronger than if a potential candidate had, for example, been working out of the district since high school in a for-profit role, only to return specifically to run for office. These are not bright line standards. They are ambiguous by nature.

Who gets to decide what “real, authentic connections in their adult lives” means? VOTERS do. They’re already doing the work for us. Our only enemy is the self-delusion that leads candidates and party to believe that beleaguered, disillusioned, in some cases desperate citizens are going to vote for someone who doesn’t understand them and share their struggles.

The effect of running a carpetbagger is bigger than whether or not that single district swings red or blue. Its effect is to degrade the entire democratic process. It contributes to the feeling people have on both sides of the political spectrum that their government no longer speaks or works for them. It helps to feed a rising populist tide in search of anyone who claims to be authentically interested in their problems, no matter how irrational those claims may be.

So as we look to the 2018 midterms I don’t think it’s too much to ask that my party only support primary candidates who live in their districts, who work there, or who raise their families there. Running for office should be viewed as a call to service, not as a career opportunity. Voters can tell the difference.