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ELECTIONS VENTURA : Candidates in the Race for City Council Hope Slick Will Do the Trick : Politics: Contenders have polished their images and honed their campaign skills as this small-scale contest goes for big-time sophistication.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The signs look more professional. The political brochures are glossier. Precinct walking is more focused. And strategy for reaching voters is becoming more sophisticated.

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As the Ventura City Council race enters its final days, candidates and former council members say this year’s campaign shows a trend toward increasing professionalism in city elections.

Eleven political consultants and campaign managers are involved in the race. About half of the 14 candidates have requested information on frequent voters from a political data firm in the San Fernando Valley. Nine candidates are getting absentee voter lists from county officials everyday.

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“In the old days, I expected a council race would be run out of somebody’s garage and with a Xerox machine,” said Ken Schmitz, a certified public accountant who is running for office for the first time. “The only ones who do that now are the ones who don’t have any financial backing. The serious candidates can’t do that.”

Candidates and incumbent council members say improved technology has raised the sophistication of small-scale campaigns. The increasing dollars funneled into the City Council race can buy an expanding array of political services and expertise available to local campaigns, politicians and activists say.

Incumbent Councilman Jim Monahan, who is seeking a fifth term, remembers that it cost him about $11,000 when he first ran for office in 1977. In his last reelection bid, in 1989, Monahan’s campaign spent nearly $35,000. This year his reelection campaign may spend as much as $40,000, according to his campaign manager.

This year’s City Council race, which ends with Tuesday’s election, is shaping up to be one of the most expensive in city history. As of Oct. 16, candidates this year have spent a total of $117,371.63.

A review of campaign financial statements shows that council candidates as a group have continued to spend more on nearly every election. The costliest race occurred in 1989, when candidates spent a total of $222,566. Candidates who spent less than $1,000 are not included in that figure.

“It gets more expensive each time,” Monahan said. “Computers have made it a lot easier. You now have all those PCs that can give you those fancy computer graphics. That wasn’t available before.”

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Monahan said he conducted a telephone survey of voters on specific issues for the first time this year.

Incumbent Councilman Gary Tuttle said he contracted with an advertising firm to design his ads for his reelection campaign.

And incumbent Councilman Todd Collart noted that more candidates are passing out campaign memorabilia this time.

Other candidates in the race are: Steve Bennett, 42, a Nordhoff High School teacher; Nancy Cloutier, 61, publisher of the Ventura County & Coast Reporter; Neil Demers-Grey, 28, a secretary; Charles Kistner, 33, owner of a job-testing firm; Dick Massa, 53, owner of Ventura Medical Supply; Rosa Lee Measures, 56, a former banker; Clark Owens, 57, a real estate broker; Brian Lee Rencher, 33, a Ventura College student; Virginia Weber, 44, an educational grants administrator; and Carroll Dean Williams, 51, a manufacturing engineer.

The increasingly polished council race has delighted some local merchants who report increased election-related business.

Mary O’Connor, owner of Signs Now!, said that in 1989 she had only one client from the City Council election. In 1991, she contracted with two candidates to produce their signs. This year she is making signs for six candidates.

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“The signs have gotten bigger and the designs have gotten more sophisticated,” O’Connor said. “We did some 3-foot-high lettering for this election, and we’ve never done that before.”

Greg Humbles, owner of Ventura Signs, said he received more calls from candidates this year asking about his products. Humbles, who has lived in the city for 21 years, said he noticed the council elections have become more slick in the last two elections.

“It used to be, you would drive through the town, and you would see a sign, and you could tell they kind of painted them in the driveway,” Humbles said. “Now that’s a rarity.”

Candidates say the more professional campaigns have extended to hiring more political consultants, mailing to absentee voters and targeting select households during precinct walking. Supporters and political action groups have also become more sophisticated in reaching out to voters, local politicians and activists said.

“There are more candidates who are hiring professional managers,” said former Mayor John McWherter, who was on the council from 1974 to 1989. By his last campaign, he said, he thought it was necessary to hire a political consultant.

Four first-time challengers hired political consultants for their campaigns this year. Cloutier, Measures, Schmitz and Weber have contracted services of public relations specialists and political consultants.

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U.S. post office workers report that about 74,000 pieces of political mail from council candidates had gone out by the middle of last week. That number is expected to rise as election day nears.

Bruce Bradley, assistant registrar of voters, said nine of the 14 candidates this year are buying labels for voters who requested absentee ballots. When he began working the county’s election office 13 years ago, none of the council candidates were going after the absentee vote, Bradley said.

This year, Bradley said, 6,831 Ventura residents will vote absentee--the highest amount ever for a city election.

“Any serious candidate now is taking advantage of the mailing list,” Bradley said.

Bradley said he has also noticed more requests during the last few elections from candidates who want more information about the 33 precincts in the city.

“They look at turnout. They look at how often people have voted. It’s not just walking down the street anymore,” Bradley said. “There is much more targeting of potential voters.”

Tuttle, who said he mailed most of his brochures to the city’s east end, said he has targeted only 14 of the city’s 33 precincts this election.

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“I’m concentrating on areas where my name recognition isn’t high,” Tuttle said.

Jim Hayes, owner of Burbank-based Political Data Inc., said candidates save money and time by requesting specific information to identify Ventura’s frequent voters. Based on returns from previous elections, nearly 18,000 residents typically cast ballots in city elections.

“The cost of mailings has gotten outrageous,” Hayes said. He estimated that it would cost $3,000 to $4,000 for target mailings, compared to $12,000 for mailing to every household.

Beverly Benton, a public relations specialist who is helping Measures’ campaign, said candidates are also becoming shrewder in targeting potential voters when they take their campaign to the doorstep in walking precincts.

“You don’t hit a lot of households and get a lot of grumpy people who aren’t interested in the election,” said Benton, who worked on Councilman Tom Buford’s campaign in 1991. “You target the people who have voted and are interested in the issues.”

Benton said Measures’ campaign has relied heavily on repeat voter lists, which show how often residents vote in city elections.

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Owens, a first-time challenger, said he was surprised at the political services available to candidates. He received catalogues from companies and telephone calls from professional consultants soliciting his business.

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“I think the campaigns are getting more professional because the technology is better,” Owens said.

Santa Barbara-based political consultant John Davies agreed.

“The political industry has gotten very mature,” Davies said. “Twenty years ago, there wasn’t an industry.”

Hayes said his company didn’t began keeping records of who votes frequently in Ventura until 1989, and that was the same time Political Data began receiving more business from Ventura elections.

In 1989, a trio of environmental candidates swept into office after being heavily backed by Patagonia, the outdoor-clothing manufacturer.

Local politicians and activists say that the sophistication of City Council campaigns was significantly boosted in the 1989 race by Patagonia’s former public affairs director, Kevin Sweeney, who had experience with presidential politics.

“The Chouinards brought in Kevin Sweeney and brought in all these professional processes,” Monahan said, referring to the owners of Patagonia, who have personally contributed a total of $4,650 to the campaigns of four candidates so far. Their company plans to spend about $10,000 in advertisements to support Bennett, Cloutier, Collart and Tuttle.

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In 1989, Patagonia and environmental activists squared off against business-backed candidates who received money from a coalition of Orange County construction firms.

Each side accused the other of trying to buy the election, and it was also the first time that political groups financially backed City Council candidates, Monahan said.

In 1991, the Ventura Chamber of Commerce and a business coalition of ranchers, bankers, merchants and unions called Venturans for Responsible Government helped elect a slate of three pro-business candidates.

Venturans for Responsible Government in 1991 spent about $40,000 on advertisements, signs and flyers.

The group reported spending $7,179 in this year’s race, according to Oct. 16 campaign filings with the city clerk.

But this time the group is not backing any candidates. Instead, it is running a negative campaign against Bennett, Collart and Tuttle. In advertisements and letters, the group has criticized Collart and Tuttle’s voting records on the council and tried to link Bennett with them because of his work on environmental issues.

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“We’re just saying what the record is,” said Carolyn Leavens, a rancher who heads the group. “We’re working on behalf of the whole slate of business candidates--they have to have a vacant seat to move into.”

Leavens said her group is also running a more polished campaign this time, hiring the services of a professional consultant and targeting absentee voters.

Collart said he noticed an increasingly early attempt to tarnish specific candidates this year.

“It’s being done earlier on because of the absentee voters,” Collart said. “Usually the negative campaigning would have come in a bunch of newspaper ads toward the end of the campaign.”

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Former Mayor Richard Francis, who heads a committee called Anybody But Monahan, also purchased about $3,000 worth of early newspaper and radio advertisements attacking Monahan.

“I used a professional sound studio for my radio ads,” Francis said. “It helped a lot.”

For the first time in a city election, an airplane was hired this year to help promote three candidates.

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Ray Ellison, who owns a chain of thrift stores in Ventura and across the nation, hired an airplane last week to fly around Ventura with a huge banner that read, “Vote for MOM.”

MOM stands for Measures, Owens and Monahan, as indicated in local newspaper ads that Ellison purchased. Ellison has also bought ads attacking Bennett, Collart and Tuttle.

“I thought I would do something different,” said Ellison, a longtime political ally of Monahan. “It’s to tickle people’s brains so they can figure it out when they look at the newspaper.”

The pilot of the plane, which costs about $200 an hour, has been instructed to fly for two hours everyday for the week leading up to the election, he said.

Collart said he worries about the effect of the increasingly slick politics in Ventura elections.

“I suspect that the average person will be less likely to come forward and participate when they see the level of sophistication involved,” Collart said. “In the long run, it means that the average person is going to be more excluded.”

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