Editorials

A murky question that hits California lawmakers where they live

State Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, leaves the Senate Chambers after being convicted in 2014 on felony charges stemming from living outside his Gardena district.
State Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, leaves the Senate Chambers after being convicted in 2014 on felony charges stemming from living outside his Gardena district. Associated Press file

Rod Wright, the former state senator from the former 25th District, was an effective and popular lawmaker. He got re-elected by wide margins. Colleagues liked him. The public lost in 2014 when a jury slapped him with eight felony convictions for living outside his working-class Los Angeles-area district and ended his political career.

But the California Constitution has a residency requirement. Legislators must be eligible voters – in other words, live – in the districts they’re representing. Never mind that most spend most of their time in Sacramento when the Legislature is in session. Or that congressional candidates only have to live in the state, not within the boundaries of individual districts.

There’s something reassuring about knowing a state-level elected official must eventually go home to the same air, the same parks, the same schools, the same potholes, as the people who put them in office. Unfortunately, for decades the law has been murky on what that definition of “home” is.

That’s why Wright’s successor, Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, seeks to introduce some clarification. It’s a risky gambit; any politician who goes near the question of residency requirements risks accusations of trying to work the system.

Any politician who goes near the question of residency requirements risks accusations of trying to work the system. But the ambiguity in the law is real, and should be addressed.

But the ambiguity in the law is real and should be addressed.

Current law allows voters – and therefore, elected officials – to have more than one residence, but says they must register only at their “domicile,” a fixed address to which they have an “intention of returning.” What that legally means for an elected official has come to depend on local district attorneys and the clout of their political enemies.

Numerous lawmakers – including Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, and Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento – have been publicly accused over the years of fudging residency requirements as they hop from office to office and as redistricting shifts political boundaries.

Sometimes the error is unintentional; sometimes, less so. But prosecutions have been rare and enforcement has been wildly uneven, partly because local politics vary and partly because the law is so vague that only large counties such as Los Angeles have the resources to build the kind of public-integrity case that will convince a jury.

Plus, in some districts, voters may not care.

Bradford told a member of The Bee’s editorial board that his Senate Bill 163, introduced last week, merely codifies current attitudes on voter registration, allowing Californians – including lawmakers – to decide which of their residences, owned or rented, is their “domicile.”

Election law experts, however, say that approach is overly broad and may unintentionally gut the residency requirement. We don’t want that to happen. As it is, we believe Californians are ill-served by politicians such as Rep. Tom McClintock, who purports to represent the Sierra Nevada in Congress while dividing his time between Washington, D.C., and Elk Grove.

But credit Bradford – who notes that he has “lived in Gardena for 48 years in the same street as my mother, in the heart of my district” – with at least starting the conversation. Wright should have stayed inside his district lines, but since 2014, his selective prosecution has been the elephant, or perhaps donkey, in the room.

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