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Meet the Bumper Crop of Candidates Who Can’t Vote for Themselves

Clockwise from top left: Georgette Gómez, Juan Vargas, Carl DeMaio and Darrell Issa / Photos by Megan Wood, Adriana Heldiz, Sam Hodgson and Jamie Scott Lytle

San Diego County’s congressional districts are each home to more than 700,000 people, roughly the population of Denver, so you might think it wouldn’t be hard for each one to elect a U.S. House representative from within its own boundaries. But one local incumbent and three leading hopefuls don’t actually live in the congressional districts they hope to serve, and they won’t be able to vote for themselves unless they move. Two of the candidates have either represented or run in other congressional districts.

To be clear, their homes aren’t very far away. Still, their foes could easily accuse them of being carpetbaggers – craven outsiders without a stake in their communities.

The open seat in the 53rd District – Rep. Susan Davis recently announced she won’t seek re-election in 2020 – and the fact that the current representative for the 50th District is facing federal criminal charges means lots of San Diego politicians have suddenly cast their eyes on the House.

If any one of these candidates is ultimately elected, he or she would join what’s currently a one-member club of San Diego House representatives who don’t live in their district:

Why don’t House members need to live in the districts they represent?

Because the Founding Fathers set it up that way. The Constitution says members of the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old (although the House has let younger people into its ranks because it felt like it), a citizen of the U.S. for at least seven years and “an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.”

The Constitution says nothing about dividing states into geographic districts. That’s something Congress came up with. In fact, some states – including California – used to elect multiple “at-large” House members, which meant each House member represented the whole state.

Has anyone made a federal case of residency requirements?

Of course! One notable plaintiff is a man whose name – Michael Schaefer – has been a familiar one in local policies for decades. He’s a former San Diego city councilman from the 1960s who was indicted (and acquitted) in a City Hall scandal and went on to become, as the L.A. Times put it, “one of California’s most notorious slumlords.”

He has been in the news for other reasons such as a run-in with an “Everybody Loves Raymond” actor that left him hit with a restraining order. Schaefer lives in Coronado and in 2018 was elected [2] to the state Board of Equalization, discombobulating fellow Democrats who weren’t exactly rooting for him.

Back in 1998, Schaefer ran for Congress in the Inland Empire to replace the late Sonny Bono despite living in Nevada at the time. The local registrar of voters wouldn’t allow him on the ballot because he didn’t live in the district, even though the Constitution only requires residency in the state at the time of the election. “So Schaefer responded as he usually does: with a lawsuit [3],” Jesse Marx reported for the Desert Sun.

A couple years later, a federal court ruled in Schaefer’s lawsuit and said California can’t muck around with the Constitution’s rules.

Is not living in the district a vulnerability?

Candidates love to pounce on their opponents’ weaknesses, and there’s precedent for controversy over where candidates live.

The Washington Post put it this way: “it’s generally considered politically advantageous [4] to actually be a resident of the area you hope to represent.” Indeed, President Donald Trump attacked [5] Jon Ossoff, a 2017 candidate in a high-profile Georgia congressional race, for not living in his district, although he lived nearby. Ossoff lost.

Locally, a residency controversy erupted [6] in the San Diego Unified School District after Voice of San Diego revealed that the school board president didn’t appear to live in the geographic district she served.

In the 50th District, Issa and DeMaio won’t be able to accuse each other of being carpetbaggers since they’re both vulnerable to the same charge. But Hunter (if he stays out of legal trouble and runs to keep his seat) or Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, could accuse them of being opportunists.

When VOSD asked DeMaio spokesman Dave McCulloch in August whether DeMaio lived in the 50th District, he responded: “Not an issue. Carl is probably the most well-known candidate with the biggest name ID, and recent polling in the district shows he’s clearly the leading candidate.”

Is it common for House members to not live in their districts?

Not really. In 2017, The Washington Post found that at least 20 members of the 435-member House didn’t live in the districts they represented [4]. Most lived close by, but there’s an unusual California case: Tom McClintock, a high-profile Republican from inland Northern California.

As the Los Angeles Times reported, McClintock ran for the seat in 2008 despite living in Ventura County, prompting an opponent to reportedly commission a U-Haul truck [7] to drive around a local courthouse with a sign that said, “Termed out Tom All the way from L.A.”

The opponent didn’t live in the district either (what is with that place?). He lost, McClintock won, and as of 2015, he lived 22 miles away from his district.