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Roderick Wright was wrong

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I wasn't in the courtroom, but the verdict last week in the felony trial of state Sen. Roderick Wright makes sense to me.

It took the jury less than three days to find Wright guilty of lying about where he lived during his run for state Senate in 2008, when voters elected him to represent a South Bay district that stretched from Westchester to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

State law requires candidates to live in the district they want to represent. Wright provided an Inglewood address — a bedroom in a modest house he'd owned for 25 years and rented to an elderly family friend.

The renter told jurors that in the six years Wright claimed on state documents to live in the bedroom, she couldn't recall him ever sleeping there.

Prosecutors said investigators found "absolutely no evidence" that Wright lived there when they searched the home, which is situated behind an apartment building that Wright also owns, just off La Cienega near LAX.

But they found plenty of evidence in a three-bedroom, four-bath home that Wright also owns, four miles away in an upscale enclave of Baldwin Hills outside of his district. There were closets full of suits and shoes, three luxury cars, personal items, collectibles and artwork.

Wright didn't exactly deny that he lived in the Baldwin Hills house. He has three residences, he told the jury: the Inglewood bedroom, the Baldwin Hills home and a Sacramento apartment he uses when the Legislature is in session.

But he testified that he had designated the Inglewood house as his "domicile," the place he considers his permanent and primary address, as the state requires. Wright said he had taken steps that he thought were enough to qualify him to run in the district.

The state Election Code's section on residency requirements is convoluted and obtuse; it seems crafted to confuse — or to give wily politicians a little linguistic wiggle room.

Still, I don't think Wright lost the case because he misread the code but because he blatantly violated the spirit of a law intended to protect voters from carpetbaggers.

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Wright is a popular man in his state Senate district, whose boundaries have changed since he first took office five years ago. He won with 72% of the vote in 2008 and 76% in 2012. Before that, he spent six years in the Assembly. He's considered a champion of small business owners and low-income children.

But even some of his supporters say the blame in this case is his. "He's got a good heart, but he made a bone-headed decision," said community activist Najee Ali. "Now people are just hoping that this sends a message to other legislators."

The message? Cast your lot with the people you represent.

The residency rule is intended to make sure elected officials understand and share their districts' interests.

The commonality of experience is what makes a politician's advocacy feel authentic to voters. You're electing the guy who shops at your markets, sends his kids to your schools, idles in your traffic jams.

The state NAACP has denounced the verdict, which Wright plans to appeal. If it stands, it could get Wright bounced from office and land him in prison for up to eight years.

California NAACP President Alice Huffman called the case "a travesty of the worst kind," in a letter implying that the prosecution was a political maneuver by former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who was running for state attorney general and trying to burnish his image as a foe of political corruption.

Is Wright's crime on par with the multimillion-dollar misdeeds of prison-bound Bell city officials? Not by a long shot.

But that doesn't mean we ought to wink, nod and accept the subterfuge. The jury in this case understood that.

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Wright is not the only public official accused of violating residency laws. Former Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alarcon is awaiting trial on several counts of perjury and fraud for allegedly lying about where he lived when he ran for office.

He claimed as his residence a rundown house in Panorama City that was perpetually under repair. Prosecutors say he lived outside the district in a nicer Sun Valley home owned by his wife.

I imagine the ways a politician might rationalize the choice: It's a nicer house, a prettier block, a safer neighborhood. It's just a few miles from the district's border. I work hard as a lawmaker and deserve to be comfortable.

That kind of arrogance fuels contempt for politicians and the election process.

Wright is a successful businessman who began accumulating real estate when he was barely out of college. It's insulting for him to rely on word games — "domicile" versus "home" — or expect us to believe that he's been living for years in someone else's bedroom.

The "travesty" here isn't the prosecution or the conviction, it's Wright's attitude toward the communities whose needs he's supposed to reflect.

It's hard enough for legislators to stay in tune with constituents when they have to spend so much time politicking in Sacramento.

When they come home, it ought to be back to the community that put them in office — not to the fancy hillside home where they keep the expensive suits and park the Maserati.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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