Local Politics

Tuesday, Mar 26 2013 07:09 PM

Elections officials explain state Senate reversal; Perez finds new home

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    By Alex Horvath / The Californian

    Leticia Perez was a guest on "First Look with Scott Cox" Monday.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Kern County elections officials explained Tuesday why they reversed their decision to allow Supervisor Leticia Perez to run for the 16th Senate District seat even though she doesn't live in the district.

Elections chief Karen Rhea said letting Perez run would "perpetuate" an 11-year-old mistake made by Kern elections staff and violate the actions of the California Legislature.

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COMMON MOVE

The practice of moving to a new home in order to run for political office is common across California, including Kern County:

* In 2006, now-Kern County Republican Party Chairman Dean Haddock moved to a home in the 3rd Supervisorial District to run for the seat. He was defeated by Mike Maggard, and moved back into his previous home outside the district.

* In 2010 alone, three local candidates moved to new homes to become eligible to run for office.

Then-Supervisor Michael Rubio moved from his home on Quincy Street just off of Alta Vista Drive in east Bakersfield into southeast Bakersfield to run for the 16th Senate District seat now up for grabs. He won.

Rudy Salas, a staffer for then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, moved to South Chester Avenue to run in the Ward 1 Bakersfield City Council race. He also won.

And Shannon Grove moved to northwest Bakersfield to run for the Assembly. She won.

* In 2012, then-retiring Kern County Supervisor Jon McQuiston moved from his longtime home in Ridgecrest to Delano to run for the Assembly. He lost.

Only Rubio, who had received nearly 28,000 votes in the June 2010 primary, could have run for his seat without moving.

Once he was certified as a candidate and won the primary, Rubio was deemed a 16th Senate District candidate.

Many of the candidates who moved were challenged by opposing candidates, who cited a segment of the California Constitution requiring candidates to be a resident of the district for one year before filing candidate papers.

But the courts have ruled the provision violates voter rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the California Secretary of State's office has concurred.

The reversal makes Perez's residence on Alta Vista Drive in east Bakersfield an invalid home base for her state Senate run and blocks some 118 regular voters who live near her from picking a replacement for Michael Rubio, despite the fact they had a vote in the 2010 election where he won his seat.

But Perez was able to rebound quickly. By Tuesday afternoon, after a madcap day spent searching with friends, family and supporters across the 16th District for a new place to live, Perez signed a lease for a rental home on 18th Street just west of Union Avenue.

Trent Hager, a campaign leader for Perez, said she would submit her new voter registration form and pull papers for the race 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Perez said she was awed by her supporters' efforts to keep her in the race.

Hager said people drove street by street throughout the 16th looking for rental opportunities, then contacted Perez to see if the home and neighborhood would pass muster.

Perez said it convinced her that the Senate race is "more than me. It's more than my personal inconvenience. I'm just so moved by people and their potential for goodness."

The day of turmoil started Monday when the Kern County Elections Division told Perez's campaign she couldn't run from her current home.

"I was, of course, disappointed with that decision," Perez said Tuesday. "We honestly believed we had (gotten approval to run). But the rules are the rules and everyone has to play by the rules."

Perez, who lives just a few hundred feet outside the 16th District, had received clearance from local elections officials to run before she announced her candidacy. Rhea said that original decision was based on sound reasoning:

The 118 active voters in a one-block-wide strip of homes along the east side of Alta Vista Drive known as the Bakersfield 595 precinct -- incorrectly placed in the 16th District by Kern elections officials in 2001 -- voted in the 2010 election that gave Rubio the state Senate seat.

Those voters, elections officials had decided, should have the right to vote for a replacement -- even though they live in the 18th Senate District.

"My focus is always from the voters' point of view," Rhea said.

But when news broke last week that Perez lives in Bakersfield 595 outside the 16th Senate District, but would be allowed to run for the post anyway, the local decision was sharply questioned.

Rhea and her boss, Auditor-Controller Mary Bedard, decided to give the issue another look. Elections officials, Rhea said, looked at the question another way: should the county respect the boundaries set by the California Legislature in 2001?

They got input from the Kern County Counsel's office and the California Secretary of State's office, Rhea said. She said her office made the final call.

"There were arguments on both sides. It wasn't a clear-cut, black-and-white decision," Rhea said.

Ultimately her office decided that using the official district lines was the "most legal" tool for deciding Perez's qualifications to run.

It wasn't right, she said, to perpetuate the clerical error that led to Bakersfield 595 voters incorrectly casting ballots in Senate District 16 between 2001 and 2010.

But, she said, neither was blocking 118 voters in Bakersfield 595 from voting for Rubio's replacement during the May 21 special primary election or the July 23 special general election this year.

"Neither way feels totally right," Rhea said.

The decision, which was shared with Perez late Monday, forced her to quickly relocate to the home on 18th street.

She will be relocated, for the purposes of an election, when she registers to vote at the new residence, Rhea said.

In 2014, the question of who can run for the Democrat-heavy territory that is now in the 16th Senate District could get interesting once again.

In less than two years, new state Senate district lines drawn in 2011 will become active. Most of the 16th Senate District will become the 14th Senate District and Perez's current residence on Alta Vista will be moved into the 14th District.

Simply put, if this election were being held in 2014, Perez wouldn't need to move in order to run.

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