Democrat TJ Cox wants the voters of the 21st congressional district to trust him with weighty matters like border control and immigration, national defense and education, foreign policy and the federal budget.
Yet he did not even know what his principal residence was until a Fresno Bee investigation uncovered that he was improperly claiming on tax records two homes across the country from each other.
Cox says it was an honest paperwork mistake, and his campaign spokesman said Tuesday that the matter has been cleared up.
But what remains is the hit to Cox’s credibility in the eyes of voters who must find the situation to be curious at best, deceptive at worst.
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Here is the background, as reported by Bee staff writer Rory Appleton:
Cox owned a home in Bethesda, Maryland. It was a three-bedroom, four-bathroom residence in the Washington, D.C., suburb that had a street value of nearly $1 million. Cox purchased it as a place for his wife, Dr. Kathleen Murphy, to live while she studied public health policy at Johns Hopkins University. She lived there with the couple’s four children.
At the same time, Cox lived and worked in Fresno.
His tax records show that he claimed both houses to be his primary residence; federal law only allows one principal home. When questioned about this, Cox’s campaign representatives initially said Maryland officials had made a mistake in how the tax form was marked.
Then Appleton provided the Cox campaign with a notarized form that Cox had initialed, claiming the Bethesda house to be his primary residence.
The campaign then said that, in fact, Cox had erred. Campaign officials added that he would repay the $692 tax credit he had received. Maryland property records show the home is no longer listed as the main residence.
Appleton asked Cox spokesman Phillip Vander Klay why the candidate did not notice the mistake in 2017 when he got the tax credit. “It was an honest mistake that he filled out the principal residence not knowing the legal definitions,” Vander Klay said.
Understanding legal definitions is a key part of being a congressional representative, given the many complicated matters that the House of Representatives must deal with on a daily basis. A voter might rightly ask, is Cox up to the task?
Also, it is hard to see how Cox did not understand the situation, given that he has owned other properties previously. Cox, an engineer by trade, is also the president of the Central Valley NMTC Fund, a community development entity that awards federal new market tax credits to small businesses and nonprofits in economically disadvantaged communities. He also owns several businesses, including an almond processing plant and senior residence homes.
Cox faces a formidable opponent, incumbent Republican David Valadao of Hanford. Valadao has trounced Democrat opponents in three previous elections despite the 16-point registration edge Democrats hold in the district. So, even if Cox ran a perfect campaign, he would still face a major challenge in trying to unseat Valadao. The two-home mistake certainly won’t help.
Nobody is perfect; everyone makes errors. But elected officials are held to the highest of standards. Cox may well have used up his margin for mistakes with this one.