In Defense of Carpetbaggers (Like, Well, Rahm)

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JONATHAN COHN JANUARY 24, 2011

In Defense of Carpetbaggers (Like, Well, Rahm)

Maybe Rahm Emanuel won't get to run Chicago, after all. Earlier today, an Illinois appellate court ruled, on a 2-1 vote, that he doesn't satisfy the residency requirements to run for mayor. Quick backstory: Emanuel did own a home on the city's north end, but he rented it out when he went to go work as Obama's chief of staff, and now his tenant wouldn't let him move back in. So… he's off the ballot, for the time being. (Emanuel's lawyers are appealing the ruling.)

Anyway, set aside the specifics in this case: Yes, Illinois's laws do seem overly strict, and it sounds odd to ding a local guy for leaving to serve in government for two years. More generally, though, why should local offices have any residency requirements at all? A number of U.S. cities and states have rules preventing carpetbaggers from getting on the ballot. But why? Local ties to a city might be a good thing for a potential mayor to have, but they hardly seem essential—and the rules can screen out qualified candidates.

Case in point: I realize China generally isn't the best place to look for ideas about political reform, but the country has at least one tradition that makes some sense. If the mayor of a small city—say, out in China's provinces—does a good job, then when his term is up he may get appointed as mayor of an even bigger city. Being able to govern a city is a useful skill, after all, so why not people who have shown some talent at it move up and try their hand at governing bigger cities, rather than restricting the job to whatever local dogcatcher can prove residency? Maybe voters don't want meddling outsiders. But they can make that choice themselves, no?

(Flickr photo credit: Robert Magala)

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, chicago, illinois

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