State Issues

Giving legislators a free pass on breaking residency rules

The State Capitol building at night.
The State Capitol building at night. The Modesto Bee

Equity and logic would seem to dictate that state legislators should live in the districts they represent and thereby share in the daily experiences and trials faced by constituents. State law has said as much for decades, though federal law does not require Congressional representatives to live among those they represent.

From time to time, individual state lawmakers have been caught living somewhere other than the district in which they’re registered to vote – usually by their opponents or reporters.

Five years ago, for instance, a Sacramento Bee reporter shadowed Richard Pan, a Sacramento legislator, and found that after the boundaries of his Assembly district were altered by post-2010 census redistricting, he claimed a condo inside the new boundaries as his “legal domicile” but actually lived with his family outside the district. As with most other such revelations, nothing happened to Pan. He went on to win a seat in the state Senate.

Rod Wright, a state senator from Los Angeles, was not so lucky. In 2010, a grand jury indicted Wright on eight counts of filing a false declaration of candidacy, voter fraud and perjury, alleging he didn’t live where he was registered to vote in his district. Four years later, he was convicted, sentenced to 90 days in jail (he spent a total of 71 hours behind bars) and was forced to resign.

Others have listed vacation homes or time-shares as their main home, despite not living on the premises.

But last August, in the dying moments of the 2018 legislative session, the Legislature approved a bill that would make all this a moot point. The bill will make future prosecutions of politicians for misstating their true places of residence almost impossible.

Building on a 1984 law with the same goal, the new legislation, Senate Bill 1250, basically said that wherever a politician registered to vote would be conclusively deemed to be his or her domicile. It specified a long list of factors, such as claiming a homeowner’s tax exemption for another home, that could not be cited to prove otherwise.

“This bill is about allowing all legislators, who must travel and live in our state capital, to be effective leaders for our representative districts without the fear of being targeted by overzealous prosecutors or political adversaries,” the measure’s author, Sen. Steven Bradford, a Los Angeles Democrat, wrote in a letter supporting the measure.

Gov. Jerry Brown not only signed SB 1250, but on the day before Thanksgiving included Wright in a long list of convicted felons granted gubernatorial pardons. Brown also pardoned Wright for a 1972 felony conviction for auto theft when he was 19.

“I’m elated,” Wright said. “It truly is a day of Thanksgiving for me.”

He had contended that the old law under which he was prosecuted was ambiguous.

Though he had to resign from the Senate, Wright is off the legal hook, joining other legislators, such as Pan, who have flouted the residency law without penalty.

It should be noted that while Democrats enacted SB 1250 (and Gov. Brown signed it), their party’s leaders tried this year to make residency an issue against Tom McClintock – a Republican congressman from the Sacramento area who lives outside his district vast Mother Lode district.

“In 10 years, Tom McClintock has never voted for himself, because he doesn’t live in our district,” the narrator of an anti-McClintock video said as pictures of the congressman flashed on the screen.

The Legislature could have gone the other way, eliminating any ambiguity about residence in the previous law by making the requirement to live in one’s district absolute.

Instead, Senate Bill 1250 is a virtual invitation for politicians to claim bogus residences as their official domiciles – effectively gaining the same dubious privilege that McClintock and other members of Congress enjoy.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public interest journalism organization. Email: dan@calmatters.org.

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