There's a historic political race going on in the Midwestern state of Illinois. For the first time ever, two African-Americans are competing for the same seat in the U.S. Senate. That means no matter how the vote turns out, America is going to have a new black senator, only the fifth one ever since the country's founding more than two centuries ago. But interestingly enough, the racial identity of the two candidates isn't what has been attracting the most attention. It's their places of residence more specifically, the fact that one candidate actually lives in the state of Illinois, and the other one doesn't, at least not yet.
Alan Keyes didn't plan to compete for the vacant senate seat in Illinois. He was asked to run by that state's Republican party leadership, after their original candidate, Jack Ryan, dropped out. Mr. Ryan had been running against rising Democratic star Barack Obama, until some controversial information about his divorce several years ago surfaced. Alan Keyes has never lived in Illinois. He's from Maryland, about 2,000 kilometers away. Federal law says he has until election day on November 2 to establish residency in Illinois, and he's already made arrangements to rent an apartment in a Chicago suburb.
But when he accepted the nomination, Mr. Keyes was eager to tell the audience that in a symbolic way, he's always lived in Illinois a state often referred as the "Land of Lincoln," since it's where President Abraham Lincoln once lived. "We must continue to assert and stand forward to defend the great principles of God's authority and unalienable rights on which this nation is founded. If indeed that land is still in Illinois, then I have lived in the Land of Lincoln all my life," he said.
Four years ago, when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton announced she'd be moving to New York, so she could run for a vacant senate seat there, many conservative critics - including Alan Keyes - accused her of being a "carpetbagger." It's a term that was first used in the latter half of the nineteenth century to describe Northerners who moved to the economically depressed South after the Civil War and bought up all the cheap land which they then sold for a profit.
"It's a way of identifying you as an outsider, someone who has no ties to the area, no real interest in the area. You're there for some sort of personal gain," says Michael Krassa, a Political Science professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne. He says "carpetbagger" is definitely not something you want to be labeled as when you're running for office in the United States. He says in many parliamentary systems, like the ones in western Europe, voters take a "national" approach to the idea of representation. They expect their leaders to look out for the interests of the nation as a whole.
But in a federal system, like the one in the United States, voters tend to take a more local, or even personal, approach to representation. Theoretically, everyone in Congress is looking out for the interests of the nation. But voters here also expect their leaders to exhibit special loyalty to the states and districts they represent, getting tax breaks and roads and defense contracts for the people who live there. And the feeling is that in order to have that loyalty, a person has to have lived in the state he represents.
"We wish everyone else would send less parochial people to Washington, but we want our guy there protecting us. I think that feeling about representation is an outgrowth of our system," says Mr. Krassa.
It's a system that was born at a time when the states were very different from one another, economically and culturally. Nowadays, life in, say, Massachusetts, isn't all that different from life in Virginia. But in the 1780s, there were vast differences between the two states, perhaps the greatest one being that one state had essentially outlawed slavery, and the other depended upon it. "We didn't think of ourselves as a country for a long time. When [President Thomas] Jefferson retired and moved home, he wrote about how good it was to be going back to his own country, meaning Virginia. So even our president didn't think of it as a nation, in the way we do now. He saw Virginia as a really distinct place from the other states," says Mr. Krassa.
America is by no means a homogenous nation. Things like weather and history and population density do contribute to cultural and economic differences among the states. But for the most part, Michael Krassa says, Americans approach the idea of representation the way they do not because of those differences, but because the local approach is built into our federal system.
And so long as that system remains, Professor Krassa says, voters are justified in being concerned about carpetbaggers. "We could be a very viable, true, vibrant democracy if we didn't have representation by congressional district and state. That's entirely possible, and many people argue it would be better to do that. I mean, some Europeans can't understand why we cling to this method. But given that we have this method, I don't think that's an unreasonable complaint about someone," he says.
When asked by a reporter if he planned to continue to live in Illinois, even if he lost the election, Alan Keyes answered no, he would not. He'd return to his home in Maryland, he said. That answer didn't go over well with many residents in Illinois. And even some conservative newspapers that have traditionally backed Republican candidates starting questioning whether a resident of Maryland has any business running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois.