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July 2012

Good lawyers - especially the ones who get into politics - often talk a lot without ever revealing very much. But that wasn't what our contributing editor, Victoria Schlesinger, encountered when she interviewed Lancaster's controversial mayor, Rex Parris, at length for this month's cover story ("Section 8 Tenants Unwelcome").

"Let's see," she says, recalling her first encounter with him. "He told me that as the head of a small law firm he makes eight figures a year; that he owns a private airplane that he paid $600,000 for, and that he is the first mayor of Lancaster ever to go to Dubai to speak at the World Future Energy Summit. He was, by the way, especially proud of that. He also told me about a brother who made a living filing fraudulent personal injury claims, that he himself had never graduated from high school, and that as a young man he had, as he put it, 'more than a passing relationship with the criminal justice system.' "

No, Rex Parris is not what you would call conventional - either as a lawyer or as a politician.

As a lawyer, Parris got a fair amount of publicity for winning a $370 million jury award on behalf of five former Guess? Inc. employees three years ago. As Lancaster's mayor, though, Parris's claim to fame - or infamy, some say - is the rhetorical war that he has waged against the low-income, federally subsidized renters who have moved to his high-desert city north of Los Angeles.

Parris is convinced there's a direct connection between street crime and these Section 8 tenants. Yet, at the same time, he says that the crime rate in Lancaster has plummeted by 40 percent since he became mayor in 2008. How does he explain this? Parris thinks it has a lot to do with the stepped-up and often intrusive compliance checks that were carried out against these households - checks that he personally championed.

Of course, not everyone approves of such tactics. And just last year the NAACP was among several groups that brought a lawsuit against the city, accusing it of harassing minority Section 8 voucher recipients in violation of federal and state anti-discrimination laws. Meanwhile, both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are investigating the charges, which could end up costing this community millions of dollars in federal grants.

So far, at least, Parris won't admit to being fazed by any of this. But the city has already spent more than a million dollars on the litigation, and Schlesinger naturally wonders how much more money the city is willing to spend.

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