Sarah Morgenthau’s Tricky House Race in Rhode Island

When Sarah Morgenthau entered the race for the open congressional seat in Rhode Island, she had to answer an age-old question in American politics: Are you really from here?

She isn’t the only one.

Mehmet Oz, a leading Republican candidate for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat, grew up in Wilmington, Del., and has lived for many years in New Jersey. A mere two years before running, Oz invited People magazine for a photo shoot inside his 9,000-square-foot mansion overlooking the Manhattan skyline. He has since claimed his in-laws’ house in the Philadelphia suburbs as his residence, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Other out-of-state candidates — like David McCormick, Oz’s chief Republican rival in Pennsylvania, as well as Herschel Walker in Georgia — have faced similar scrutiny this year.

Morgenthau, a lawyer who left a top Commerce Department job to run for office as a Democrat, does have ties to Rhode Island. Although she grew up in Boston and New York, she notes in a video announcing her candidacy that she married her husband in the backyard of the Morgenthau family’s summer home in Saunderstown, a village north of Narragansett. “While work has pulled us elsewhere, Rhode Island is the place that has remained constant in all of our lives,” she says.

On paper, Morgenthau is an impressive candidate.

She has an impressive résumé: degrees from Barnard College and Columbia Law School, and stints at senior levels in the Peace Corps, the Department of Homeland Security and at Nardello & Company, a private security and investigations firm.

And an impressive family: Her mother, Ruth, was a scholar of international politics and an adviser to President Jimmy Carter. In 1988, Ruth Morgenthau ran for office in Rhode Island as a Democrat, losing to Representative Claudine Schneider, a Republican.

Sarah Morgenthau’s uncle was Robert Morgenthau, the famed longtime district attorney for Manhattan. Her grandfather Henry Morgenthau Jr. was President Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of the Treasury. Henry Morgenthau Sr., her great-grandfather, documented the Armenian genocide as the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

That family connection led Sarah Morgenthau to push the Biden administration to recognize the Armenian genocide, an initiative that won her a laudatory write-up by Politico in April 2021.

“She was national co-chair of Lawyers for Biden, a prolific fund-raiser and a volunteer on national security policy groups for the campaign,” Politico reported. “She served as a surrogate who was frequently quoted in national publications about the trajectory of the race or the temperature of donors.”

None of it might matter if Morgenthau can’t answer that question — Are you really from here? — to the satisfaction of Rhode Island voters.

Morgenthau has much to prove in the months before the Democratic primary election on Sept. 13.

She’ll have to overcome the local favorite in the race, Seth Magaziner, who is the state’s general treasurer. He has already secured the backing of several major unions, and has so far outraised the rest of the field. More than 95 percent of Morgenthau’s campaign donations have come from out of state, The Boston Globe has noted, versus 27 percent of Magaziner’s.

Rhode Island’s political culture is famously insular and suspicious of perceived outsiders — so much so that Brett Smiley, a candidate for mayor of Providence who has lived in Rhode Island for 16 years, began his campaign kickoff speech last month by nodding to the fact that he grew up in Chicago. “Like more and more people, I chose Providence,” Smiley said. “I have lived and worked elsewhere and know that what we have here is special.”

It’s common in the state to see bumper stickers that say, “I Never Leave Rhode Island.” The fight song of the University of Rhode Island begins, “We’re Rhode Island born and we’re Rhode Island bred, and when we die we’ll be Rhode Island dead!”

“People are very rooted in their communities,” said Rich Luchette, a longtime aide to Representative David Cicilline, who represents the state’s other congressional district. “There’s a resistance to change of any kind.”

Little wonder, then, that Morgenthau has faced incessant questions about her Rhode Island credentials from the local news media.

When The Providence Journal asked candidates in the race to answer a series of trivia questions about Rhode Island, Morgenthau gave an answer that was nearly identical to a Wikipedia entry — and the newspaper called her out for it.

Then came a brutal encounter early this month with a local television anchor, Kim Kalunian, who asked if Morgenthau had ever lived in the state for an entire year or enrolled her children in school there.

“I have been paying property taxes in the Second District for 40 years,” Morgenthau replied, though she conceded that the answer to both questions was no.

A clip of the exchange rocketed around Rhode Island’s tightly knit Democratic political class, which is nervously watching the race to succeed Representative Jim Langevin, who is retiring. While Langevin won re-election relatively easily in 2020, some Democrats fear that in a weak year for their party, a candidate lacking local ties could help hand the seat to Republicans.

“Being out of state isn’t necessarily fatal,” said Joe Caiazzo, a Democratic consultant who ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the state in 2016. “I think the way it’s being handled is fatal, because it highlights the lack of local connectivity, which is so important in Rhode Island.”

Morgenthau is well aware of the skepticism. In an interview, she emphasized her “extensive experience in Washington” and described herself as someone who “will go through a brick wall if I need to get things done.”

She also spoke about a “commitment to public service that has been instilled in me since I was a young girl at the kitchen table,” a theme she has highlighted while campaigning.

“When people meet me,” she said, “they’re going to see someone who’s a problem solver, who has Rhode Island’s back.”

There is a successful playbook for running as a carpetbagger — and it was drawn up by none other than Hillary Clinton.

In 2000, Clinton took a gamble by running for Senate in New York despite never having held elective office, growing up in Illinois and living for many years in Arkansas while her husband was governor. She had some major advantages: universal name recognition as first lady, an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate and a lackluster opponent in Rick Lazio, the Republican candidate.

But Clinton had never lived in New York, and she knew her lack of roots in the state would be a problem. Her solution, the brainchild of the pollster Mark Penn, was a “listening tour” of New York’s 62 counties during the summer of 1999, as she weighed an official run.

On several occasions, with the help of local Democratic Party officials, Clinton even stayed overnight in the homes of complete strangers, where she was known to pitch in on household chores.

The listening tour did not always go well. During a visit to an electronics plant outside Binghamton, protesters held signs that said “Hillary Go Home” and “Hillary: Go Back to Arkansas, You Carpetbagger.” Clinton, reportedly a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, was also pilloried for doffing a Yankees cap when the team came to the White House to celebrate its World Series win.

Lazio tried hard to capitalize on the issue; an account of his campaign rollout in Time magazine said that he “flashed his New York pedigree almost as often as his teeth.”

Clinton’s rejoinder was to emphasize her familiarity with subjects important to New Yorkers, and to outwork Lazio. “I may be new to the neighborhood,” she said during her announcement speech, “but I’m not new to your concerns.”

She also hired a team of experienced New York operatives, led by Howard Wolfson and Bill de Blasio, to help her navigate Manhattan’s vicious tabloid press.

But it was the upstate listening tour, much mocked at the time, that ultimately allowed her to shrug off the accusations of carpetbagging.

“We purposely designed the events to be small groups, to listen to what people were worried about,” recalled Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s campaign manager. “She said very little and took a lot of notes.”

The events were so devoid of drama that eventually, they lulled the press to sleep, Solis Doyle said.

“By the end,” she said, “they were bored to tears.”

— Blake

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