Equity and logic would seem to dictate that state legislators should live in the districts they represent and thereby share their constituents’ daily experiences.
by Dan Walters
State law has said as much for many decades, and from time to time, individual lawmakers have been caught registering to vote in their districts but actually living somewhere else, either 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.
However, 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 that 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 just 71 hours behind bars) and forced to resign.
Wright Is Now off the Legal Hook
Last August, in the dying moments of the 2018 legislative session, the Legislature approved a bill that would 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.
Although 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.
Eliminating Any Ambiguity About Residence
It should be noted that while Democrats, including Brown, enacted SB 1250, 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, even though members of Congress are free to live outside their districts.
“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.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.