Rolling Out the Carpet

Guest Correspondence


I’ve been hearing the term “carpetbagger”* thrown around quite a lot lately. Loosely, it’s a term historically used to define someone relocated from somewhere else hoping to profit from the move. For instance “yankees” came south after the Civil War in hopes of profiting from reconstruction. Now in a broader context, it can also refer to a person who moves to an area personally and politically amenable and then a short time later runs for office.

Like many others, I shared the sentiment that one should be suspicious of any person who runs for public office in a community they are new to. It seemed natural and logical for quite a while to harbor those ideas. However, recently I came to the conclusion that on its face it’s not natural and logical. It’s actually exclusionary, elitist, parochial and intellectually lazy. I have since abandoned and replaced that philosophy with a less emotional, more practical one.

To begin with, the term is a relic from a much less tolerant time in our history, one that when applied contemporaneously holds little real value in a community where just about everyone is from somewhere else, all arriving at different times. In fact, governance in Florida can be more complicated for this very reason. By the way, if you want to be entertained regarding this read Charlie Carlson’s book Weird Florida. He was a speaker at a fantastic sustainability conference the county hosted – the guy is hilarious. I digress.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether a person running for office has spent “enough” time in the community they seek to represent. However, the law actually dictates the terms for qualification. In reality, it depends on the candidate, their story, and the office they seek as not all jobs are the same.  Issues for a city commissioner, a member of Congress, a sheriff, a tax collector and a state legislator can be very different as is the relationship with their constituents. Me, I try to simplify it. I’m looking for four things in no particular order: honesty, capability, competence and electability. It is increasing difficult to find people that have all four. Sure, I am aware that many people in our community have all four components but I also know that many of them want nothing to do with the business of running for public office. I understand why they may feel that way. I really do; it is not everyone’s “bag” – no pun intended.

But what if a so-called “carpetbagger” is honest, capable, competent and electable? Well, I say let’s help the so-called “carpetbagger” roll out their carpet in our community. Don’t worry, seldom does a candidate get off easy as some campaigns are not only long, they can be excruciating with plenty of opportunities to publicly and privately scrutinize candidates and their knowledge, or lack of and you should. That is in fact what campaigns are for.  It’s a form of consensual hazing I completely endorse, so long as it does not devolve into harassment.  If you can’t handle the stress of a campaign then you probably can’t handle the job. What’s more is that in the information age so much more information is available about candidates. I hear some of it is actually correct. 

By all means, be skeptical of candidates new to the community but be practical as well. Be receptive to the possibility that you may be impressed and decide to support a new resident for public office.

* In the history of the United States, carpetbagger was a derogatory term applied by former Confederates to any person from the Northern United States who came to the Southern states after the American Civil War; they were perceived as exploiting the local populace. The term broadly included both individuals who sought to promote Republican politics (which included the right of African Americans to vote and hold office), and those individuals who saw business and political opportunities because of the chaotic state of the local economies following the war. In practice, the term carpetbagger was often applied to any Northerner who was present in the South during the Reconstruction Era (1863–1877). – from Wikipedia 

Paul Caragiulo is a former Sarasota city and county commissioner.

Pictured: Historic political cartoon of a carpetbagger.

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