Bill Emmerson

10:00 PM PST on Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – Assemblyman Bill Emmerson’s decision to run for a Riverside County state Senate seat already is forcing him to confront a thicket of residency issues.

Emmerson, a longtime Redlands resident, reregistered to vote in Hemet earlier this month. He will continue to represent his San Bernardino County-based Assembly seat, even though Hemet is not in the district.

In addition, Emmerson is leasing the Hemet house from a political donor and longtime friend. The situation means he has to prove the rent is fair-market value to comply with campaign-finance rules.

Riverside County’s 37th Senate District officially will become vacant Monday when state Sen. John J. Benoit, R-Bermuda Dunes, resigns to fill a vacancy on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will call a special election to fill the Senate seat next year.

Emmerson is the only Republican candidate so far to declare that he’s running for the GOP-leaning district. He has moved quickly to lock up support from leading Republicans and on Tuesday will be feted at a $1,000-a-person fundraiser at the Orange County home of state Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Tustin.

But others are considering the race and any competitive campaign would likely include scrutiny of Emmerson’s move to the district and allegations of carpetbagging.

Hemet Councilwoman Robin Lowe, one of the hosts of next week’s fundraiser, brushed off questions about the lawmaker’s moving into the district to run.

“I think Bill Emmerson will make a fine senator,” Lowe said.

Added Emmerson, “My family moved there in 1955. I practiced orthodontics (in Hemet) until 2008. I have long ties in the community. I’m moving back into my hometown.”

Not his home

Emmerson reregistered to vote Nov. 5 using the address of a Hemet home purchased last year by Nicholas and Charlotte Jones.

The couple owns the Miller-Jones Mortuary and Crematory in Hemet. Charlotte Jones leads the Hemet school board and Nicholas Jones is a member of the city planning commission.

Nicholas Jones, who said he has known Emmerson since the two were growing up in Hemet, has contributed $1,630 to Emmerson’s state campaign committees, records show.

“I have a house to lease out. He’s got a house he doesn’t want to sell because of the economy. I said, ‘Stay here,’ ” Nicholas Jones said in an interview.

Fair rent

The situation touches on state laws regulating political contributions.

Jessica Levinson, the director of political reform at the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there is nothing wrong with the arrangement so long as Emmerson is paying fair-market rent.

An overly cheap rent would amount to an in-kind campaign donation and would have to be reported and subject to state contribution limits. Politicians around the country have been tripped up on property issues, most recently longtime Rep. Charles Rangel, D-New York, who faces an ethics inquiry into the below-market rents he paid on some apartments.

$1,000 a month rent

Emmerson said this week that he is paying $1,000 a month out of his pocket for the 1,625-square-foot house near the Ramona Bowl Amphitheatre. He provided a letter from a Hemet real estate firm declaring that $1,000 is fair-market value.

The Joneses bought the house last summer for $299,000. It is across the street from their home.

“He’s a good neighbor, because he’s in Sacramento all the time,” Nicholas Jones quipped.

Some media reports on Emmerson’s candidacy have highlighted a clause in the California Constitution requiring would-be candidates to live in a district for one year and the state for three years.

But the provision hasn’t been enforced since 1976, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it violated the U.S. Constitution, according to the secretary of state’s office.

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