Why Are Californians Obsessed With Where Their Politicians Live?

Richard Alarcon Convicted

L.A. City Councilman Richard Alarcón

Admit it: You’re not exactly sure where you live, are you?

Don’t be embarrassed to acknowledge that, beyond knowing your street address, you’re a little uncertain. California has so many thousands of overlapping local government jurisdictions, plus so many political district lines that divide communities, that understanding where you are at any given moment, even where you sleep each night, can be tricky. Many communities have changed and developed so rapidly that agreeing on a name, or fixed boundaries, is hard. Plenty of Californians have mailing addresses that might say one city (like Fresno) when they vote in another (neighboring Clovis). Add that to the fact that until recently most people in migration-friendly California were born and raised elsewhere, and confusion about place is to be forgiven.

The trouble is that we Californians, despite our own confusion, aren’t so forgiving about residence when it comes to two kinds of people: politicians and parents of school-age children.

California journalists and prosecutors are so obsessed with where politicians live, you’d think they had no real scandals to pursue. Already this year, prosecutors have won voter fraud and perjury convictions against two politicians—State Senator Roderick Wright and former state legislator and L.A. City Councilman Richard Alarcón—who were found to be living a short distance outside the boundaries of their legislative districts.

And as the new school year gets under way, California school districts are badgering families to verify their residence. My oldest son is starting kindergarten this month in a San Gabriel Valley district that has required two different appointments for residency verification on top of two online verifications. I stopped counting after the seventh form I signed attesting—under penalty of perjury—that I actually live where I live.

Such zeal in making sure we live within district lines, and not one block over, is somewhat peculiar, since Californians’ taxes that pay for schools get funneled through Sacramento. It also seems hypocritical, when you remember that the donors who fund campaigns and the interest groups that dominate school policy don’t have to live in the places where they exert their influence. Unlike some other places, we don’t require our teachers or city managers or cops—or prosecutors, for that matter—to live in the jurisdiction where they work. We couldn’t even if we wanted to—California’s constitution won’t allow it.

Residency rules are especially strange in Los Angeles County, which is defined by the fact that no one can tell where one community ends and another begins.

Residency rules are especially strange in Los Angeles County, which is defined by the fact that no one can tell where one community ends and another begins. Covering elections in Southern California, I would find myself listening to a voter explain her reasons for supporting a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles—only to learn that she lived in Santa Monica or Culver City, which are separate municipalities. One of the editors of this column thinks she lives in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mid-City but has had neighbors tell her she’s in West Adams.

And then there is the endless L.A. war about which neighborhoods are on the Westside and which are on the Eastside. There are at least three camps—one says the dividing line is Main Street, another (of which I’m a member) maintains that the L.A. River is the divide, and an insurgent group of hipsters want their west-of-downtown ’hoods labeled Eastside, for its gritty credibility.

Even folks who should know where people live—officials and the media—have no idea. While covering Governor Schwarzenegger for the L.A. Times, I waged a years-long battle with the newspaper copy desk over where the governor lived. I kept writing, correctly, that his home was in Brentwood; copy editors, using a novel interpretation of the geography of the Santa Monica Mountains, kept changing it to Pacific Palisades. Matters of place are so contested here that I can’t quote Dorothy Parker’s famous comment that L.A. was “72 suburbs in search of a city” for fear of getting nasty e-mails from Angelenos who maintain that the phrase comes from either Aldous Huxley or H. L. Mencken.

Given this broader context, I hope you’ll understand why I think Governor Jerry Brown should step in and pardon Alarcón and Wright, the two L.A.-area politicians convicted of not living in their districts.

To read the news coverage and hear the jury verdicts in their cases, you might think Alarcón and Wright had moved far afield from their communities. But that’s not the case. Last week, I drove between the address each man used for political purposes and the home where each was actually living, and in both cases, I remained safely within the same section of Los Angeles. It took me 11 minutes to make the 5-mile drive from Alarcón’s political neighborhood in Panorama City to his real home in the neighborhood next door, Sun Valley; both are in the San Fernando Valley. It took me six minutes to drive from Wright’s Inglewood apartment, where he was registered to vote, to his home in Baldwin Hills, both of which are within the LAX-adjacent section of L.A. that might be called Tarantino-land, after the movie director who has set so many films there.

joe-mathewsOf course, some stuffy legalists will maintain the hoary principle that you can’t represent a community unless you live there. But that’s simply not true in other California contexts.

The best example might be high school sports, which traditionally has been about children from one town competing against the children of another town. Of course, that’s not how things work in California. As the L.A. Times’ indispensable high school sports columnist Eric Sondheimer recently reported, about 15,000 high school athletes in the state transfer each year to other schools, often many miles, even hours, from their homes.

It’s so routine for championship high school football and basketball teams to rely on ringers that it’s become big news when a high school wins with kids from its own community. Sondheimer has labeled this a “nomadic culture” of “free agent” teenage athletes seeking opportunities to shine on the field and win college scholarships. CIF, the state’s athletic governing body, tried to limit transfers, but gave up, in part because of the legal costs involved with fighting parents who challenged the old transfer restrictions.

It is interesting that while Californians embrace these ringer athletes and the championships they bring to their communities, they rail against their politicians, who are far more local than their high school point guards. So why not take a page from youth sports and allow politicians to transfer out of their districts to other districts that will take them, without having to change residence?

joe-mathews-175Such a change would broaden the talent pool for communities seeking elected representatives. And taxpayers would save money on unnecessary investigations and prosecutions of politicians over where they live.

We are a state of ringers. And we shouldn’t run from that fact. Especially since we couldn’t be sure where we were running to anyway.

Joe Mathews
Zócalo Public Square


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    (1) I almost don’t care what technicality they got him on: in my book Rod Wright early on merited getting kicked out of office for malfeasance and misrepresentation. He too took money early and often from the Carolina Plastic Bag lobby. And the first time around, his supporters stuck his paid-by-plastic-polluters yard signs on my front yard without asking me or even telling me.

    (2) I’ll bet few readers – or maybe even the author – realize this, but it seems that, unlike a California State Assembly or State Senate legislator, a US Congressguy need NOT ‘live’ in ‘her’ or ‘his’ district, at least at the time of filing for office. The reason is understandable. Collectively, per the US Federal Constitution, the Congressionguys from California represent the entire state, and nothing but the entire state: the districts within the state are the state’s temporary creations, but not of account to the federal Congress: the Constitution says nothing that would prevent two or more Congressguys from actually residing in the same district – much as California’s two current US Senators both come from the SF Bay area.

    Yes, it does immensely help one’s election to Congress to be able to tell voters that your residence is in the district, but it’s not a requirement. And anyhow every ten years Congressional districts get redrawn. As a result, even if nobody has actually changed residence, a strict residence requirement could arbitrarily deprive you of the Congressguy you and your neighbors have got used to and would just as soon continue in office.

  2. dusty says

    The people of a district vote for a candidate with the understanding that the candidate lives in the district and will be representing the needs of that population and geographic area. If a candidate does not even know what district that they live in then one has to question their ability to represent the needs of the people of her/his district after election or is one to assume that elected officials only represent people who give them money, lobby them with gifts, or what?

  3. Luis L. says

    I believe that we must hold our politicians to a higher standard. He should have known better and he should not have lied. There is no excuse. Now if you want to do away with the residency requirement to represent a district that is another issue. But this is the law right now. I believe a representative should live in the district they are representing at all levels of government.

  4. J Thom says

    Though citizens that don’t know what district they are in, is one thing. those politicians, however, did indeed know the rules and did everything they could to deceive the public. That is indeed different!

  5. john says

    The high school I went to had an unspoken rule that academic ringers were allowed. If you were going to get As and do all the hard classes, they would overlook your address change.

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