Richard Lugar's much-publicized residency issues—that he lives in Virginia rather than his nominal home state of Indiana—have caused him a lot of grief of late, but they also raise another question. Lugar claims he moved to Virginia when he was first elected because he couldn't afford to keep two separate houses—yet he owns a farm in suburban Indianapolis that would have to be worth at least $10 million if he developed it. So why has he been pleading poverty? That's what we're wondering, too.
The story so far: Lugar, Indiana's Republican senator for nearly 36 years now, is facing his toughest competition in decades, from both sides. First, he has to survive a tea party-fueled challenge from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, and then, if he clears that hurdle, he faces a stronger-than-usual challenge from a Democrat in November, in the form of Rep. Joe Donnelly. (Donnelly apparently felt that the chance at running against a tea partier instead of the popular-across-the-aisle Lugar was enough justification to give up his House seat, although the bad hand dealt him in redistricting also no doubt motivated him.)
What's not helping matters for Lugar, though, are the charges that he's "gone Washington." That began with allegations in the Republican primary that he's guilty of being insufficiently conservative, a silly attack in that he's always had a conservative voting record; what that really means is that he's guilty of the charge of actually trying to legislate and working cordially with Democrats, as opposed to playing the GOP's new game of mindless monkeywrenching. However, the charges that really seem to be sticking are the ones that he's simply not in present in the state, even less than usual for a senator, but perhaps not even enough to qualify as a senator from Indiana at all.
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Lugar lives primarily in a residence that he owns in affluent Beltway suburb McLean, Virginia. However, Lugar has been registered to vote for many decades at a home on Indianapolis's west side, and also uses that address on his driver's license. There's just one catch: Lugar sold that house in 1977, not long after his election to the Senate, citing the financial expense of having two residences.
That had somehow never been an issue until this cycle, but responding to citizen complaints, the Marion County Elections Board (the county where Indianapolis is located) decided in March that, having not owned that property for more than 30 years, no, Lugar couldn't remain registered to vote there. However, an easy fix presented itself: Lugar also owns a farm in Marion County, which, though he hasn't lived there, he has at least consistently owned. Previously, though, he's said conditions at the farm are "rustic" and not suitable for living—and he also said it wouldn't be "truthful" to declare that he lives at the farm because, well, he doesn't live there. (He didn't live at the other residence either, though, so it's strange that he cares about truthfulness all of a sudden.)
Lugar reversed course though, and decided the best course of action was to try to register to vote at the farm. And he finally got some sorta good news last Friday from the Marion County Election Board: He can register to vote in Indiana using the farm's address. The news is only "sorta good" because it just keeps underscoring the problem that threatens to swamp him, if not in the primary, then in the general: that he's an absentee senator who doesn't own anywhere in the state where he can live, and who just stays in hotels on his occasional returns to the state that elects him.
Not just that, but he apparently has trouble properly billing those same hotel expenses. After initially cutting a check to the government for $4,500 after Politico busted him for improperly billing taxpayers for hotel visits on trips "home" to Indiana, Lugar has admitted that his repayment wasn't large enough. (Senators aren't allowed to recover expenses for overnight stays in the area they're allegedly from when the chamber is not in session.) So now he's copping to a bill that, at nearly $15,000, is three times as large.
So while Lugar can at least continue voting for himself, this latest development just brings the bad optics back to the forefront. And his campaign hasn't helped matters, with their recent admission that he's spent 1,805 days in Indiana, treating that like it's a large number. But that's spread out over 36 years in the Senate, around 50 days per year. (Democratic opponent Donnelly picked up on that theme and recently announced that since his election to the House, in 2006, he's somehow managed to spend 1,151 days in Indiana, in six years.)
But that's not the end of the story, at least for us here at Daily Kos Elections. Lugar's farm isn't some small stretch of land—it's an enormous 604 acres, which is almost one square mile. And it isn't out in the boonies, either: Don't forget that Marion County is where Indianapolis is (and has a population of 903,000), and in fact for the most part is coterminous with the city of Indianapolis. So we're talking suburban at best, and where could such a huge "farm" fit? It turns out it's in the southwestern corner of the county:
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It's pretty much all of those brown fields and woodlands to the south and east of the "A" flag, between the road and the river. You can see why Lugar's calling it "rustic"; why, he'd have to drive almost a mile to get to the nearest Domino's Pizza!
But there's actually a second punch line here. Lugar's long claimed that he moved to Virginia when he was elected to the Senate in the late '70s because it was "too expensive ... to maintain two houses." And indeed, Lugar also ranks near the bottom of the Senate in terms of personal net worth. But that's because this supposedly "rustic" farm has an assessed value of "only" $280,200, probably thanks to an exemption for agricultural land (the farm is used to grow soybeans, corn and nursery stock).
Now, suburban Indianapolis is not downtown Manhattan, but this is still a gigantic and well-situated tract which would be worth many, many millions if it were developed as subdivisions. Look at the image below, zoomed out to show the greater context: It's an area that's about the size of downtown Indianapolis and yet only about five miles away from downtown Indianapolis.
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If you look at Zillow
, you'll see that in the subdivisions across the street from his farm, houses on quarter-acre lots are listing for between $60K and $100K. Now think about how many quarter-acre lots you can cram into 604 acres ... and also that you're going to get a much better rate on the lots with river frontage. (That, of course, doesn't mean he'd actually get $100,000 per quarter-acre, since much of the value lies in the buildings, not the land, and there are many hidden costs in subdivision development; it also doesn't mean that he'd have 2,416 building sites, since you need to allow for streets, utilities and green space. But even allowing for conservative estimates of each lot having a site value of $10,000, and there being only 1,000 sites, that's still $10 million right there.)
[UPDATE: H/t to commenter Bart Ender, who digs up a listing of a comparable property: a 61-acre agricultural tract also within the Indianapolis/Marion Co. limits in the southeastern part of the county, listed for $641K. If $10,500 is the going rate per acre for agricultural land a similar distance from the center of Indianapolis, that would put the market value of Lugar's 604 acres well north of $6 million, even as agricultural land and not factoring in its future development value.]
Lugar may have sentimental reasons for not doing developing the land, or perhaps environmental concerns (just kidding about that last one). But whatever the reason, he's sitting on a massive, untapped cash cow and any attempt to plead poverty to justify his peripatetic lifestyle should ring just as hollow as his claims that he's still a genuine Hoosier.