It’s one of the enduring fictions of American politics that House Representatives and Senators, who have full-time jobs (well, “full-time”) in Washington, DC, and who are well-paid but not well enough to afford to own two homes unless they have other sources of wealth outside of their salaries, actually “live” in their home states or districts. Don’t get me wrong, some of them do; either their home base is close enough to DC to commute (albeit sometimes still inconveniently), or they rent a cheap apartment in DC, or take a room in a “house” like the infamous “C Street House.” Some even sleep in their Congressional offices. But the idea that all or even most Reps and Senators, at least the ones with families, keep their primary residence back home is, like I said, basically a fiction. But residency requirements say that they are supposed to make their primary residence at home, and voters, who surely realize how unrealistic that is, nevertheless tend to get mad whenever some Senator or Representative is found to be gaming the system. It’s the “don’t ask, don’t tell” principle; as long as voters aren’t shown that their Rep or Senator doesn’t live back home anymore, they’re happy to pretend that he or she does.
As somebody who grew up and became politically aware in Western Pennsylvania, I am particularly familiar with how angry voters can get when they find out (well, “find out”) that an incumbent is playing with their residency requirements. When I was a kid, the House Rep for most of southern Allegheny County (I grew up in northern Allegheny County) and the surrounding area (PA-18, if you’re one of those people who actually knows Congressional districts by number) was a Democrat named Doug Walgren. Walgren had been elected in 1976 and held the office for seven terms. He lost, in 1990, to an up-and-coming young Republican named Rick Santorum, who made a lot of hay in the campaign out of the fact that Walgren, who had a wife and three kids, had effectively stopped living in the district and was a full-time resident of the DC area.
In 1994, Santorum defeated incumbent U.S. Senator Harris Wofford (he’d won a special election to finish the term of the deceased John Heinz in 1991), in part by playing to the idea that Wofford wasn’t really from Pennsylvania (he’d lived and worked in PA since 1970, but his biggest claim to fame was working on the formation of the Peace Corps for the Kennedy Administration). Admittedly, though, the fact that 1994 was a Republican wave election and most people were voting in opposition to Bill Clinton was much more important to that race than Wofford’s residency, but the issue was still there.
But in 2006, the tables were turned. Santorum had been in Congress for going on 16 years and, lo and behold, with a wife and kids to think of he’d basically moved out of PA and become a full time resident of Virginia. After facing a very weak opponent in his 2000 reelection campaign, Santorum went into 2006 facing an electorate that wasn’t happy with Republicans, and an opponent, Bob Casey, Jr., who was well-liked statewide and benefited from the fact that his father, former governor Bob Casey, Sr., was well-remembered in hindsight (he’d died of amyloidosis in 2000). Then the stories about his residency came out. Reporters found out that Santorum was getting his kids schooled via a PA cyber-charter school, but was in fact living full time in Virginia, meaning he was bilking the state and the school district out of the cost of educating his kids while not paying state or property taxes in PA. He still owned a house in his old House district that he used to claim residency, but it appeared that he had let some relatives move in to the place, to the extent that anybody was living there at all. The fiction now revealed, voters made Santorum pay, and his residency snafu contributed to a whopping 17 point loss to Casey in November.
I offer this story by way of analogy, so that you’ll understand when I say that I suspect Kansas Senator Pat Roberts has got some explaining to do:
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts put a signature to documents associated with the mortgage on a Virginia residence that identify the Fairfax County home as “principal residence” of the three-term incumbent Republican.
The re-election campaign of the Kansan has been awash in controversy about whether his ownership of a duplex in Dodge City, which is rented out, and his payment of about $300 a month for a room in a Dodge City supporter’s home satisfied legal requirements for public office.
On Wednesday, records surfaced that Roberts signed a Deed of Trust in 1997 and 2003 for property owned in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Franki, that contained text about a principal residence.
The documents, which include a series of covenants, required Roberts to attest the couple within 60 days of executing the document “shall continue to occupy the property as borrower’s principal residence for at least one year after the date of occupancy.”
Yeah, he’s in a little trouble.