CLAY JENKINSON: The Future In Context — Carpetbagging Explained: Dirty Socks, A Soiled Shirt And An Old Carpetbag

As the Georgia Senate runoff election enters its final days, the Republican candidate, Herschel Walker, has been accused of carpetbagging. Tapes have surfaced in which he nonchalantly tells the people of Georgia that his home is in Texas. “I live in Texas,” Walker said in January 2022 while speaking to the College Republicans of the University of Georgia. Why did he decide to run for the U.S. Senate? “As I was sitting in my home in Texas, I was seeing what was going on in this country with how they were trying to divide people.”

Whether this late-campaign revelation will hurt Walker’s chances in Tuesday’s election remains to be seen. Even before the CNN tapes emerged, it was well-known that Walker’s ties to the state of Georgia were by now tenuous. But they were not always so. He was born in Augusta, Ga., in 1962, raised in Wrightsville, and he played football and ran track at the University of Georgia, where he was a three-time All American and the winner of the 1982 Heisman Trophy.

Walker Texas Ranger

Walker played professional football for a number of National Football League teams, most notably the Dallas Cowboys. His tax records indicated that Walker’s primary residence for 2021-2022 was Tarrant County, Texas.

The carpetbagger accusation is unlikely to be determinative. His authentic roots in Georgia and the fact that he is one of the most accomplished athletes to come out of the state, not to mention that he was a celebrated NFL running back, may neutralize the fact that he no longer really lives there. He has stronger heritage ties to Georgia than to any other state.

The Origin of the Term

The term was coined in the former Confederacy in the aftermath of the Civil War. Hundreds of Northerners flocked to Southern states to take advantage of the political and economic opportunities associated with Reconstruction. In 1867, Tennessee Secretary of State Andrew J. Fletcher said, “For the adventurer and the office-seeker who comes among us with one dirty shirt and a pair of dirty socks, in an old rusty carpetbag and before his washing is done becomes a candidate for office, I have no welcome.” A carpetbag was an inexpensive suitcase with carpet material on its sides.

The U.S. Constitution has only three requirements for an aspiring senator. Article I, Section 3 says, “No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.” “When elected” is a pretty vague requirement. The federal courts have been consistent in ruling that states cannot impose further restrictions on Senate candidates. Even a recent or indeed temporary residence in a state meets the Constitution’s requirements, though voters may demand a more rooted commitment to their state when they enter the voting booth.

Americans Shrug Their Shoulders

In the 21st century, the American people are, on the whole, not as averse to carpetbagging as they once were. This may be one shrugging manifestation of the general disillusionment and cynicism of the body politic. It is quite common in the 21st century for ambitious individuals to move to a state for the purpose of running for office. Such candidates do quite well, all other things being equal. Carpetbagger candidates tend to have built a national reputation elsewhere. They count on their prior achievement and name recognition to give them political advantage in the state they adopt for political purposes. Many of the individuals who run for office now own multiple homes in different states.

Even so, the charge of carpetbagger was one significant factor in the defeat of Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. His principal home was in neighboring New Jersey. Many citizens of Pennsylvania asked, “Is he really one of us?” “Does he really have the best interests of the people of Pennsylvania in mind?” “How much does he really know about Pennsylvania?” For many in Pennsylvania, Oz was more clearly a “parachute candidate” than, say, Herschel Walker, who has bona fide ties to Georgia.

Some Carpetbaggers in American History

America’s first carpetbagger may have been Founding Father Rufus King (1755-1827). Born in Massachusetts, King attended Harvard and studied law in Massachusetts. He represented Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where he distinguished himself as an orator and a prose stylist. At Alexander Hamilton’s suggestion, King moved from Massachusetts to New York in 1788, got himself elected to the state assembly and was almost immediately elected by the assembly as one of New York’s first U.S. senators in 1789.

Et Tu, Roosevelt?

When war hero Theodore Roosevelt ran for governor of New York in 1898 after his spectacular adventures in Cuba, he was no longer a legal resident of the state where he was born and raised, where he had served as the then-youngest member of the New York state Assembly. Roosevelt had ceased to be a legal resident of New York on Oct. 1, 1897, when, specifically in order to lessen his tax burden, he had terminated his lease on his sister Bamie’s Manhattan town house at 689 Madison Avenue. In doing so, the always money-strained Roosevelt had saved approximately $50,000 in assessments.

The state constitution of New York required that all candidates must be in continuous residence in the state for at least five years. Roosevelt’s residence in 1898 was Washington, D.C., where he had been serving as the assistant secretary of the Navy. TR might have been able to finesse that if he still maintained a residence in New York. Two eminent Republican attorneys sprang into action to save his candidacy. Unfortunately, what they learned was that Roosevelt had legally declared himself a resident of Washington to avoid New York taxes, just as he had previously declared himself a resident of New York City to escape higher taxes in Oyster Bay on Long Island. Roosevelt was so upset by the scandal that he seriously considered withdrawing from the campaign. He had built his brand, after all, on being a man of unimpeachable integrity and rectitude.

Attorney Elihu Root, who later became Roosevelt’s secretary of war and secretary of state, worked some legal legerdemain to prove that Roosevelt “essentially considered himself” a lifelong resident of New York state and that the word “residence” could be interpreted in a number of different ways. Root cited Roosevelt correspondence that “proved” that he had always insisted on strict propriety in his tax profile. In other words, Roosevelt’s powerful backers merely covered his sins with a smokescreen of barely plausible arguments. This was regarded as sufficient — politically if not quite legally — to enable the hero of San Juan Hill to stand for the governorship even though, technically, he was disqualified. Although this was one of the less honorable maneuvers of Roosevelt’s otherwise distinguished political career, it is certain that he was not a true carpetbagger. His life and career are inextricably tied to his beloved New York. Nobody, not even his enemies, dared to think otherwise.

Carpetbagging In Our Times

Hillary Clinton of New York by way of the District of Columbia, Arkansas, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Illinois. (Flickr/ kansieo)
Hillary Clinton of New York by way of the District of Columbia, Arkansas, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Illinois. (Flickr/ kansieo)

Hillary Clinton ran successfully for a New York Senate seat in 2000, just as her husband, Bill Clinton, was finishing his second term as president.

Hillary Clinton grew up in Illinois. She attended college in Massachusetts and law school in Connecticut. Then she moved to Arkansas, where her husband, a native of the state, launched his political career. She lived in the District of Columbia for eight years. Then she ran for the Senate in New York, where she had never lived until 1999, when the Clintons purchased a house in Chappaqua to establish her residency.

She was accused of being a carpetbagger by her political opponents, including New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but she easily defeated her Republican rival, Rick Lazio. Celebrity and national prominence matter. Besides, this wasn’t New York’s first experience with carpetbagging.

Bobby Go Home

U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York by way of Massachusetts. (Associated Press)
U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York by way of Massachusetts. (Associated Press)

In 1964, after serving as attorney general in his brother’s administration, Robert F. Kennedy ran for the U.S. Senate in New York. Although Kennedy had lived in New York briefly as a boy, he was clearly Senate shopping in a liberal state in his region of the country.

In that race, the issue of carpetbagging provoked a serious local and national debate. Kennedy’s opponents expressed real bitterness that a known resident of Massachusetts, a member of a famous Massachusetts political dynasty and the brother of a martyred president, had swept into New York as a mere political opportunist to pick up an available Senate seat.

Demonstrators carried signs saying, “Bobby Go Home.” In an editorial, the New York Times accused Kennedy of “attempting to use New York and the senatorial office in a relentless quest for greater political power.” Kennedy wit helped to disarm the controversy. RFK made light of the criticism at his campaign events and in media interviews. His wife Ethel Kennedy whimsically suggested that his campaign slogan be, “There is only so much you can do for Massachusetts.” Kennedy won the Senate seat by 720,000 votes.

New York born and raised Jay Rockefeller served five terms as a U.S. Senator from West Virginia. (flickr/twins)
New York born and raised Jay Rockefeller served five terms as a U.S. Senator from West Virginia. (flickr/twins)

Jay Rockefeller was a distinguished five-term U.S. senator from West Virginia! Mitt Romney became a senator from Utah in 2019, though he had served as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. Elizabeth Dole, the wife of Bob Dole who spent most of her life in Kansas and Washington, D.C., moved back to her home state North Carolina in 2001 to run for retiring Sen. Jesse Helms’ seat. She served a single term in the Senate before losing her bid for re-election in 2008.

John McCain, who was born in the Panama Canal Zone and had never lived in the state of Arizona, moved there in 1981 and was promptly elected to the U.S. Senate. Responding to bitter accusations of carpetbagging, McCain said, “Listen, pal. I spent 22 years in the Navy. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the first district of Arizona, but I was doing other things.” And then he added, “As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.” That was the end of that!

Herschel Walker has been accused of fathering children that for decades he refused to acknowledge, pressuring women he impregnated to get abortions and paying for at least one such procedure, while arguing that abortion should be illegal in America, claiming that he took a degree (with honors!) from the University of Georgia, though he never graduated, claiming falsely that he served in the military and also the FBI and much more. His residency status is unlikely to be one of the principal factors in the 2022 runoff election. It is quite possible that Walker will win the Georgia Senate seat in spite of these issues. In other words, the Georgia election is a parable about a deeply divided country in which tribal allegiance is often regarded as more important that such issues as honesty, integrity and character.

You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing cjenkinson@governing.com or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.

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