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Carpetbaggers hope you don’t care

One of the few encouraging story lines from the valley’s many unnoticed down-ticket primaries was the residency challenge filed against Assembly District 19 candidate Steven Brooks.

Not because it had much merit (it didn’t). Not because the complaint came solely from concerned citizens (it didn’t — Brooks’ primary opponent was a driving force). But because if only for a few days, the issue reminded voters that our representatives are supposed to live among us, that citizens have access to the information needed to verify politicians’ addresses, and that candidates and office holders can be held accountable if it is revealed that they actually live somewhere else.

Southern Nevada has a pretty rich recent history of politicians winning election to represent one part of town, then packing up and moving to another, leaving the peasants for the privileged. A few carpetbaggers have been caught and kicked off ballots. Others have become legendary for flouting residency requirements.

The complaint brought against Brooks, a Democrat, was piled on top of other nasty campaign material and nearly cost him the race. In a district with more than 7,000 registered Democrats, Brooks won with just 494 votes, beating Meghan Smith (who tried to strike down his candidacy) by 36 votes. He’s the favorite to replace term-limited Jerry Claborn.

Brooks’ sworn statements to election officials about his residency contradicted property and voting records. He signed a statement claiming he has lived at his Las Vegas address since 2004, but election records show he was registered to vote in a Henderson precinct in 2008.

It was a pretty dumb move for someone already involved in politics — Brooks is on unpaid leave from his job as chief of staff for Las Vegas City Councilman Ricki Barlow. But under the law, it doesn’t really matter where you lived in the years before you filed for office. The state’s declaration of candidacy form asks whether the candidate lived at an address within the office’s jurisdiction for at least 30 days before the close of filing.

District Attorney David Roger dismissed the complaints against Brooks, finding that the alleged interruption in his residency at the Las Vegas address “is not material with respect to his candidacy.”

“The claims have no merit,” Brooks said earlier this month. “The D.A. didn’t file charges.”

If Brooks goes on to win the general election, he’ll probably be the least likely legislator to enjoy the greener pastures of a “second home.” He knows that Smith and her supporters will be watching.

Residency is a tangential issue in another Assembly race: District 7, where long-time incumbent Morse Arberry, the Democratic chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is being forced out by term limits.

The Republican seeking his seat, Geraldine Lewis, says the primarily North Las Vegas district will finally have resident representation come November.

“I think it’s common knowledge in the district that he (Arberry) doesn’t live here,” Lewis said. “People have been telling me about it for years. It’s something that’s important. Voters want someone who’s concerned about being there for people, living there with them, not someone who’s not showing up for 10 years at a time.”

Arberry owns several homes, including one in the district and one inside Canyon Gate Country Club. Folks in Carson City don’t merely whisper that Arberry hangs his hat in the confines of the gated country club, far away from his lower-income constituents — some openly joke about it. But voters kept sending him back to the capital with nary a question about whether he lived alongside them.

A phone message left with Arberry’s assistant, including specific questions about his primary residence, and an e-mail to his legislative account received no response by Friday afternoon.

There was a lot of unreported irony in 2007, when Yvonne Atkinson Gates resigned from the Clark County Commission and Arberry made an unsuccessful play for an appointment to her District D seat. Atkinson Gates’ own residency had been questioned because she and her husband had built a custom luxury home in the far western valley, miles from her district.

The year before, Commissioner Lynette Boggs McDonald was videotaped by a private investigator (hired by the police union) retrieving her newspaper, dressed in a bathrobe, in the driveway of a home outside her district boundaries. And Commissioner Myrna Williams complained to anyone who’d listen that her election challenger, then-Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, maintained her primary residence on Mount Charleston, not inside District E.

And Arberry wanted a seat on the commission? Amazing.

Another longtime lawmaker, former state Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, dealt with his own residency questions back in the 1996 campaign, shortly after he married a Las Vegas woman and began shuttling between the cities.

“My opponent spent $400,000 claiming I didn’t live in Reno,” said Townsend, who resigned his Senate seat this year, before being term-limited out of office, to take a post on the Nevada Gaming Commission. “You’d think he would have disagreed with just one vote of mine. … I won by 20 points.

“I’ve always lived in Reno. I come to Las Vegas on my time, on my dime.”

Lawmakers, ever looking out for themselves, have long kept residency laws on the vague side. It would be wrong (and unconstitutional) to prohibit elected officials from owning property outside their districts. But that makes it awfully easy to turn investments and getaways into secret homesteads.

Many lawmakers list post office boxes as their personal mailing addresses on the Legislature’s website. That forces curious voters to contact election officials to request the public records that show the physical address of their representative’s home.

The state’s residency standard was effectively set by the Nevada Supreme Court in 2002, when it ruled “your home is where your cat lives.” The apartment a Clark County Commission candidate had claimed as his primary home was a sham residence, the court ruled, mainly because his cat — and his fiancee — lived across town. The intent of Nevada residency law was to prevent opportunists from seeking any office they desired, the court ruled.

Are all carpetbaggers finally on notice in Nevada? I wouldn’t bet on it. They’ll keep straying far from home as long as they think you don’t care.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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