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Opinion

Opinion: Sen. Wright is wrong on racism, right on unfair enforcement of residency law

Roderick Wright
State Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) on his first day in the Senate after last week’s conviction for perjury.
(AP)

State Sen. Roderick Wright announced Monday that he would give up his seat in the California Legislature, seven months after he was convicted of voter fraud and perjury for lying about living in his Inglewood district when he ran for office.

But Wright took one last parting shot at the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, which investigated and prosecuted his case, saying his treatment “amounted to a 21st century lynching.” Wright’s comments were part of a message posted to members of the West Los Angeles Democratic Club, The Times reported.

His supporters also suggested racism played a part in his prosecution. Wright’s attorney, along with Assemblymen Steven Bradford of Gardena, told Times reporters that five fellow legislators don’t currently live in their districts. Yet only Wright, who is African American, has been prosecuted.

It’s hard to see Wright as the victim of racism. The D.A.’s office has successfully prosecuted nearly a dozen politicians – white, Latino and African American – for lying about living in their districts. Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who is Latino, was recently found guilty of violating the residency law.

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Racism, it’s not. Unfair application of the law, it is.

The fact is, Wright’s supporters hit on the uncomfortable truth that candidates around the state have flouted California law, which says state and local candidates must live in the district they seek to represent. Yet, there have been virtually no cases brought against those politicians. Why? The Los Angeles County D.A.  appears to be one of the only offices in the state that has allocated the manpower to investigate these kinds of public integrity cases.

The Sacramento County district attorney’s office told the Sacramento Bee that most counties refer residency complaints to the secretary of state’s office for the first level of inquiry. But the state office doesn’t have the capacity to do an intense investigation, which can include stakeouts and reviews of utility bills. And the legal standard for residency is vague, so it takes a lot of work to build a strong case.  As a result, most counties don’t go after politicians who appear to be living outside their district.

Some folks have said this selective enforcement is reason enough for California to rewrite its Constitution and do away with the residency requirement. But that seems backwards. There’s a reason residency is enshrined in the state Constitution; we want elected officials to live among the people they represent. Just because that’s not convenient for some politicians doesn’t mean California should throw out that value or turn a blind eye when it’s being ignored.

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