October 18, 2009 in City

Verdict: Judge is no carpetbagger

By The Spokesman-Review
 

When someone hurls a political slur during campaign season, it’s probably too much to expect for the slur-slinger to get it right. But still …

In an e-mail to constituents last week, Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple explained his endorsements for various city offices. No big deal there. As long as he doesn’t use city equipment – which he didn’t – Apple is as entitled to an opinion as everyone else.

At least one reader questioned whether Apple was out of line for a label he hung on Municipal Judge Tracy Staab.

Carpetbagger.

The reader suggested it was libelous, which it probably isn’t, because political speech is among the most protected by the courts. Being legally protected, however, doesn’t make it accurate. And while Apple is not the first to use the term in this race, that merely means he’s also not the first to use it wrongly.

A carpetbagger is someone who arrived recently in an area, moving there to take advantage of a situation, make a profit or run for election. In the South during the Reconstruction era, shady Northerners who did this were said to be traveling so light they carried all their belongings in a carpetbag, the 19th-century equivalent of cheap carry-on luggage. While Webster’s allows an alternative definition of an outside and resented politician, the connotation still would require some sense of recent arrival.

Hillary Clinton was called a carpetbagger when she moved to New York to run for the U.S. Senate in 2000, as was Robert Kennedy in 1966. And they were, although that didn’t keep either from being elected.

But this is not what Staab did. She used to live in the city of Spokane; about eight years ago, she and her family moved outside the city limits to the county, where they remain – in part, she says, because they have room for their horses.

Other than the fact that some carpetbaggers arrived in the South on horseback, it’s pretty hard to apply the carpetbagger label to Staab. She didn’t move there to run for municipal court; that job didn’t even exist back then.

Apple’s complaint is she’s sitting as a municipal judge when she’s not a city resident. But that’s not illegal; state law says city voters must select their municipal judges. It does not say municipal judges must be city residents, and the City Council, which was so interested in having city voters elect municipal judges, did not make city residence a requirement for the job.

Apple knows this very well, because he tried to change the city law this spring with just such a requirement. It failed, 4-2.

Municipal judges enforce city laws, not just on city residents but on anyone who breaks those laws in the city. If conduct, not residency, lands one in municipal court, a reasonable argument can be made that competence, not residency, should decide the consequences of that conduct.

Apple and others may consider the city’s lack of a residency requirement a shortcoming, others might consider it ironic, and still others no big deal. Whatever. It’s not carpetbaggery.

When a version of this column appeared on the newspaper’s Web site last week, Apple defended his word choice thusly: “I believe any body still considers an elected official who would literally refuse to live in the area they are elected for would qualify as a carpetbagger.”

This seems to be the argument Humpty Dumpty made to Alice, that a word “means just what I choose it to mean, nothing more nor less.” In fact, were she to do what Apple suggests – end her refusal to live in the city and move back into it – then she would be a carpetbagger.

On this side of the looking glass, words mean what they mean. Apple should at least think up a correct word to express his opprobrium.

Spin Control is a weekly political column by veteran reporter Jim Camden, who can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or jimc@spokesman.com. It is also a blog at www.spokesman.com/ blogs/spincontrol, where readers can weigh in on this topic and other daily posts.


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