Politics shift meaning of ‘home’

May 29, 2006

State law allows a legislator to spend most of his time in Sacramento and still list another city as hisofficialresidence.

By BRIAN JOSEPH
The Orange County Register

IN THE CAPITOL: “I fly down and work in the district as much and as hard as anyone in this building,” says Assemblyman Van Tran, a former Garden Grove city councilman.

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SACRAMENTO – They say home is where you lay your head, but for California lawmakers it can be more complicated.

Assemblyman Van Tran lives in a new West Sacramento home he owns and shares with his wife, Cindy.

But in the eyes of the law, Tran, a Republican, doesn’t live there. He lives in Westminster – with his parents.

State law says lawmakers live wherever they’re registered to vote, and lawmakers can register anywhere they please, even if they spend little or no time at that address.

Some experts say this is good because it lets lawmakers live near the capital where they work.

But others say it opens the door to carpetbagging, weakening the very foundation of representative democracy.

It’s what allowed former Sen. Ross Johnson, a Republican, to represent Irvine when he and his wife and two daughters lived in Gold River, near Sacramento.

It’s why Assemblyman Tom Umberg, a Democrat, rents a condo in Santa Ana when he and his family own a five-bedroom house in a neighboring Republican district.

And it’s how Tran, a rising star in the Republican Party as one of the nation’s first Vietnamese-American legislators, was planning to run for termed-out Sen. Joe Dunn’s 34th state Senate District seat when his parents live in the 35th.

Two households

Tran, an attorney, freely acknowledges his West Sacramento home, registering at his parents’ house and briefly changing his registration to a studio apartment in order to qualify for the 34th Senate District seat. He says none of those things harm his connection to the community he represents, the 68th Assembly District.

“I fly down and work in the district as much and as hard as anyone in this building,” the 41-year-old said in an interview this month at his Capitol office.

The former Garden Grove city councilman owns several pieces of property in and around Sacramento, but none in Orange County, according to documents on file with the state.

His wife is from the Sacramento region and is registered to vote in West Sacramento. They were married in a Sacramento church shortly after he was elected to the Assembly in November 2004.

Meanwhile, in Orange County, Tran has changed his registration three times since October – first to his parents’ house in Westminster, then to the studio apartment in Garden Grove, then back to his parents’ house.

The dates of the changes correspond to when Tran flirted with running for the Senate and then dropped out to seek re-election in the 68th Assembly District.

Tran’s opponents in the Assembly race think residency is an issue. Long King Pham, Tran’s challenger in the June 6 Republican primary, and John Paul Lucas, the Democratic candidate, both say he is too disconnected from the district to accurately represent it.

“Meeting the spirit of the law and the letter of the law are two different things,” said Lucas, who lives in Costa Mesa. “If his wife’s primary residence is in Sacramento, I would assume his primary residence is with her.”

Making it legal

Tran disagrees. Asked if he felt his registration changes opened him up to charges of carpetbagging, Tran said, “It’s not like I’m from Nebraska and one day I want to run for state Senate in California and therefore I just move over and then say, ‘OK, I’m here! I’m running.’ … I have a long, deep-running relationship with the city” of Garden Grove.

Tran said he decided to move in with his mom and dad in Westminster, after selling his home in Garden Grove, when his older brother, Henry, unexpectedly died of cancer in January 2005.

“After my brother’s passing, I realized everybody’s time here is temporary and short. And my parents are in their mid-70s. And I want to spend more time with them – as much as I can, given the nature of this job,” Tran said.

Tran says he stays with his parents whenever he returns to Orange County, which he says he does every weekend. He estimates he spends 60 percent of his time at his West Sacramento home, with the rest spent living with his parents in Westminster. He said his wife joins him at his parents’ house two or three weekends a month.

And when the Legislature is out of session in fall, Tran said, he and his wife live with his parents full time.

“It’s a non-issue,” he said.

Tran was only registered at his parents’ house for four months when he changed again, to an address in the 34th Senate District.

Tran said he only changed his registration “to make it legal” for him to run for the seat. He registered at the Garden Grove home of Margaret Zuliani, who told The Orange County Register that Tran rented a room from her. The next day, Feb. 24, he pulled papers for the Senate race.

But four days later, Tran announced he was opting out of the Senate race to seek re-election to the Assembly. The next day, on March 1, he re-registered at his parents’ house. Tran said he dropped the Senate bid because he was concerned Democrats would pour a lot of money into the race to protect a seat their party controls.

Public perception

Experts say residency issues don’t necessarily affect candidates politically because voters understand they maintain homes near the Capitol and could own property elsewhere. What’s critical is that candidates be upfront about their living arrangements, they say.

“To me, it’s not an issue of legal or not. It’s whether a legislator feels he or she can properly represent the district,” said Peggy Kerns, a former Colorado legislator and director of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Center for Ethics in Government. “The public’s expectation is key here, that they be properly represented. It’s up to them to decide.”

In Orange County, the issue is often brought up, but candidates are elected anyway. In the 2004 primary for the 69th Assembly District, for example, Democrat Tom Umberg faced accusations of carpetbagging because he was renting a condominium in Santa Ana while his family owned a home outside the district, in Villa Park – Republican Assemblyman Bob Huff’s district.

Umberg won and is now running for the Democratic nomination in the 34th Senate District. He still owns the Villa Park home and continues to rent the condo, which is in the 34th.

Residency wasn’t a problem for former state Sen. Ross Johnson, who moved his wife and two daughters from Orange County to Sacramento after he called home one day and learned one of his daughters had lost part of a finger in an accident. Johnson said he was heartbroken he wasn’t there for her.

Johnson was open with voters about moving his family to Sacramento and maintaining a condominium in Irvine so he could continue to represent Orange County.

“I think spending time with your family is important,” Johnson said last week from his Sacramento-area home, where he now lives full time. “I don’t think it affected anything at all. I think I was a pretty accurate representation of my constituency.”

CONTACT US: (916) 449-6046 or bjoseph@ocregister.com

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