Non-native lawmakers still wince at the C-word

Moving halfway across the country isn’t easy for most people. But when you’re running for Congress, cozying up to new neighbors means getting a vote, not just a cup of sugar.

Many lawmakers run for office in the districts where they were born and raised, or at least where they spent their college years. The exceptions tend to blend in, sporting regional accents and obscure native knowledge that mask the challenge of representing an area where they are relatively new arrivals.

It’s not all for show. Successfully transplanted politicians know that avoiding the carpetbagger label means playing the chameleon.

Having followed his father’s path to the Navy, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had spent more time on the water than in the desert when he moved to Phoenix at the age of 44. But McCain’s pursuit of a political career, sparked by his service as a naval liaison to Congress in the 1970s, could not be derailed by a mere accident of birthplace.

“My situation is, my wife was born and raised in Arizona and I was on retirement from the Navy,” McCain explained. In fact, Cindy Hensley McCain, who wed and settled down with the decorated sailor two years before his winning a House bid in 1982, is part of one of the state’s most prominent and wealthy families.

“We visited Arizona, we married in Arizona; it was a logical thing,” McCain said. But his first campaign was hardly a foregone conclusion. McCain hit the streets and walked door to door introducing himself to Grand Canyon Staters, falling in love with Arizona while competing to represent it. Today, he’s an unabashed cheerleader for Southwestern scenery and Sun Belt boom.

“It’s not propaganda to say that Arizona is a magnificently beautiful state,” McCain said. “There’s lots of opportunity there.”

McCain is in good company among the many other lawmakers who chose their new homes to support their spouses. Husband Elwyn’s job at the University of Houston sent Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) far from her roots in Queens, N.Y., and it took three attempts at a state judgeship for Lee to get noticed in Texas politics.

Lee turned down a request to discuss how she earned the trust of Texans, perhaps because of the stigma that still surrounds carpetbaggers.

“I’d agree with the carpetbagger thing” under certain circumstances, said Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.). For Baird, who grew up and went to school in Colorado and Wyoming, the test of true carpetbaggers lies in East versus West and city versus country.

“If somebody thinks they could come from New York City, or Texas, and represent [my district], they’ve got a problem,” Baird said.

Carpetbagging got its name after the Civil War, when white northerners migrated south, eager to profit from rebuilding the devastated Confederate states and carrying their worldly possessions in bags made of carpet. The epithet grew to describe political wannabes who move to a brand-new area for the express purpose of getting elected there.

Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) recalled the C-word popping up in her first race, seven years after the Air Force veteran moved to Albuquerque. Wilson had never been elected to office, and her opponent said she couldn’t truly understand the state because she “never rode her bike” on its neighborhood streets as a child.

“I said, ‘What matters more … is what bike’s in your front yard today,’” Wilson said, referring to the two children she was raising in the district. “It’s about your connection to the community.”

Wilson’s connection, like McCain’s and Lee’s, began with love. The New Hampshire native became a New Mexican when “I married one. I’m a mail-order bride,” Wilson joked. “I’ve now lived in New Mexico longer than I’ve lived anywhere else.”

Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), originally of Allentown, Pa., was similarly seduced by the exotic culture of his district, like “ice fishing. It’s fabulously exciting to go ice fishing, and it’s very foreign to where I grew up.”

“There are people who can’t wait for the ice to thicken,” Kline said, his eyes lighting up. Kline’s wife, Vicky, a fourth-generation Minnesotan, still owns a farm in the district that has belonged to her family since 1856.

Like Wilson and McCain, Kline found that his military service left him accustomed to constant moves, one of which brought him to Washington for the job of safekeeping the president’s nuclear missile codes.

“We could have lived anywhere in the world, I guess,” Kline said. Even now, aspects of his district remind him of Allentown.

“It’s a blend of suburban to rural, and that’s largely how I grew up,” Kline said. “I found it very easy to identify with the values of the people who live there.”

Running for office in an area full of new arrivals, where regionalism is not as strong, tends to help political transplants. The most famous of their ranks, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), benefited from the melting-pot electorate of her new state, and Hawaii-born Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) got a virtual free pass on carpetbagging charges when his 2004 opponent, Alan Keyes, entered the race before even moving to Illinois.

“You’d find more reaction, more resentment of carpetbaggers in more homogeneous areas,” said Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University and author of the best-selling book America’s Political Dynasties. “It’s a lot easier to break into a state where there’s not such an entrenched elite.”

Hess attributed Clinton’s win to the power of her celebrity name, and he noted that New York’s legacy of loving famous outsiders started with former Sen. Bobby Kennedy (D), “a Massachusetts boy to the core.”

Though she considers herself a “born and bred” Bay Area native now, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) faced a similar situation. Tauscher is a Jersey girl who worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

She moved to the West Coast in 1989 and quickly took on a new role that did not involve politics — single motherhood. When friends and neighbors asked her to run for Congress in 1994, Tauscher turned them down to focus on raising her daughter Katherine, now 14. Two years later, she relented and won.

Even with a safe seat and a leadership position with the New Democrats, Tauscher downplays her past. Her favorite part of living in California, she said, is simply that Katherine was born there. “It’s because my district is high-growth,” Tauscher said, full of transplants who were attracted to high-tech jobs, that she found it so easy to connect with voters.

Tauscher was following in the footsteps of an earlier transplanted congressional mom, former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.). Schroeder had lived in Oregon, Minnesota and Massachusetts but spent only six years in Denver before knocking off a native Republican incumbent.

“In Colorado they could have never accused you of being a carpetbagger, or they would’ve offended everyone in the state,” Schroeder said. When she served, “it was a small delegation, and almost everybody was from somewhere else.”

Now six out of the state’s nine delegates are homegrown.

Schroeder, who now heads the Association of American Publishers, predicted that the carpetbagger tag would forever be applied in some Eastern and Southern states, where “you don’t have citizenship unless you’re born there.”

Despite accusations to the contrary, some members have gained the deepest appreciation for the personalities of their new hometowns since coming to Washington.

“You can live in your district your whole life and not know it nearly as well as someone who represents it in Congress and travels home every weekend,” Baird said.

Of course, no local welcome wagon can beat the lure of political celebrity. Baird has held 225 town meetings in six years to get not only acquainted but entrenched with his coastal base.