Geography, for instance.
Come with me, if you will, to the quiet, suburban streets of Hoover, Alabama. There, we find street after street of cookie-cutter homes, and manicured lawns. We find none of the problems one has to encounter if one lives in the 7th Congressional District, in places like Ensley, Bessemer, Greensboro, or Eutaw. No poverty. No unsightly substandard homes. No unemployed men and women hanging around on the corner, because there are no jobs to look for. We find nice homes, here, like this one:
This nice home, located at 6053 Waterside Drive in Hoover, is just the sort of home respectable people live in. They live there to have respectable neighbors, not the riffraff you'd be living next to in other parts of the county. In fact, Waterside Drive is in an exclusive gated community, so that all that riffraff can't just wander in off the street and do all the things we know they want to do in nice neighborhoods. For the most part, the nice neighbors here are respectable Republican neighbors. After all, this nice house at 6053 Waterside Drive is represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by Republican Spence Bachus, since it's in his 6th District. It's represented in the Alabama House of Representatives by Republican Paul DeMarco. In the Alabama Senate, it is currently represented by GOP Senator Hank Erwin, but fellow Republican Cam Ward will take over that seat in January. And of course, since it's in Hoover, the mayor is former Republican legislator Tony Petelos. Let's look at these fine, Republican gentlemen:
Yes, they all look like nice, safe neighbors. Not like "those people" you'd have to live next to in, say, the 7th Congressional District. Well, maybe Spence looks like he needs a Rolaids, and that Petelos guy looks a little too Greek, but, hey, he's Republican, so he must be OK. So who owns this nice, safe, gated house in Hoover? Well, the nice lady who does is trying not to be seen there these days. She has an apartment over on Third Avenue North in Birmingham, in the 7th Congressional District. Why on earth, you ask, does she need an apartment in such a dangerous part of town (close to them!), when she owns this nice, safe suburban home behind a gate? Well, it seems she's running for Congress from that 7th Congressional District. Yes, boys and girls, 6053 Waterside Drive in Hoover is the home of Congressional candidate Terri Sewell.
Now, I know what you are going to say. It is clearly set out in U.S. Const., Art. I § 2, that:
No person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty five years, and been seven years a citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of that state in which he shall be chosen.I know. Nothing in there about residing in the district. And I know Sewell claims to be a resident of the 7th District, in her downtown apartment. But let's see, who does the whole I-live-in-an-apartment-downtown shtick remind us of? Oh, yeah. Him. Funny, when Larry Langford was running for mayor, The Birmingham News ran any number of stories on whether Langford's apartment was his bona fide residence. We read about his multi-room NFL cable package in his Fairfield home, and about the lack of basic amenities in his Birmingham apartment. But, a search conducted for any articles at www.al.com containing the words "Sewell," "apartment," and "residence," turns up no articles on Sewell's home in Hoover. Of course, the News has endorsed Sewell, and it opposed Langford at almost every step of his political career. While it appears that history will be none too kind to Langford, what's sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose.
Neither is Ms. Sewell apparently ready to burn her gated community bridges behind her. She continues to own her home in Hoover, and while several homes on her street are listed in the Birmingham MLS as for sale, hers is not among them. Of course, in 2008, when Ms. Sewell wanted to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, she claimed 6053 Waterside Drive in Hoover, in the GOP 6th Congressional District, as her residence. I can understand that; there weren't nearly as many people in Republican Country who wanted to be Democratic Convention delegates, so the running was easier. Is Ms. Sewell legally a resident of the 6th or the 7th Congressional District? I don't know. Only a court can make that determination. And, as I noted above, district residency is not a requirement for election to Congress; the only way a court could become involved would be if she were prosecuted for illegally voting in the wrong precinct (including, presumably, for herself). Let's hope it doesn't come to that, but if it does, let's hope a high powered former Wall Street lawyer like her knew not to keep a toothbrush in Hoover.
Where that residence can, and does, make a difference is in Sewell's image of herself, and that has a lot to tell us about her ability to empathize with, and relate to, the residents of the 7th Congressional District. Ms. Sewell did not grow up in poverty. Her parents were both public schoolteachers (as were mine). While not wealthy, schoolteachers in Alabama were no longer skipping meals by the time Ms. Sewell came along. (Thank you, AEA.) She spent several years as a partner in a Wall Street law firm where per-partner profits were well over a million dollars a year. She is now a partner in one of the most elite law firms in Alabama - perhaps the most elite. Her choice of home was certainly not constrained by her income. No longer married to anyone with an interesting history, she need not worry about the size of the home or yard.
Now, I realize that Birmingham has not reached the critical mass of a black upper class, so as to have historic black upper-class neighborhoods, like Atlanta's Collier Heights, or newer such areas in other parts of that city. But it does have decent neighborhoods in predominantly black areas, and it certainly has excellent housing available in more urban settings. My issues with Artur Davis, the departing Congressman from this district, are well known. His choice of residence - currently on Fifth Avenue South in the heart of Birmingham's Southside, his only residence in Alabama - is not one of them. Barack Obama, though his wife's income could have made a mortgage payment anywhere in Chicago, moved onto the South Side.
Sewell's first instinct was to move into a home where her next door neighbor could be - and likely listens to - Glenn Beck. That simply doesn't communicate to me care or concern for the sort of folks she will be called on to represent if she is lucky enough to win election. Should a person of color be precluded from living anywhere he or she can meet the mortgage payment? Of course not. They should even have the right to remove themselves behind gated fences. But representative democracy has at its root a presumption of a community of interest between constituent and representative. Spencer Bachus has a lot in common with the residents of Waterside Drive in Hoover, and his voting record shows that he reflects those interests well. If and when Sewell has to cast votes on financial reform and job creation, will her instincts be those of Tuxedo Junction, or those of the brokers and bankers on Waterside Drive? Hoover has one of its own in Congress. It doesn't need another.