In His Second Term, a Mayor to Be Reckoned With


Manuel Lopez is not a typical city mayor. He sees himself as a loner, reserved in judgment, even shy.

But his quiet disposition masks a strong sense of ambition and perseverance that he used to survive a decade-long battle with tuberculosis, enter city politics at a time when the Oxnard power structure was mainly white and endure nearly two decades on the council.

His style is well known to Oxnard residents.

“He is not a table-pounder,” said longtime friend and former Mayor Jane Tolmach. “He is quiet and determined and he knows right from wrong.”


While his supporters consider him a man of strong convictions, Lopez has also been criticized by some for being ineffective and out of the loop.

But lately, Lopez has been flexing his political muscle, taking his landslide 1996 victory as a mandate.

Lopez’s very public opposition to former City Manager Tom Frutchey in the fall and his outspokenness against elected city officials’ free golfing privileges are just a couple of examples of the latest issues he has taken on.

Now Lopez no longer finds himself the sole “no” vote on many issues, as he often had since the 1992 election, when he narrowly defeated Councilman Michael Plisky for the mayoral spot.

Lopez waited out those four years, certain the council balance would change. Now he often finds himself voting with at least two allies on the council--newcomer John Zaragoza and Bedford Pinkard.

Still, Lopez does not relish making waves, and his style is not one of confrontation. Discussion and disagreement are intrinsic in a democracy, he says, and after so many years in politics, he picks his battles carefully.


“There are a lot of tough people in town, but most of the time they lose,” Lopez said. “The easiest person to defeat as a political opponent is someone who thinks they are tough because they spout off about everything.”

Lopez, 70, says he enjoys sitting on the council and retirement is not looming. But the man who thought he would call it quits after two terms would like to spend more time with his family, traveling and relaxing.

Born in Oxnard to parents who fled the Mexican Revolution, Lopez is the second youngest among four siblings. Though he remembers his upbringing as a warm and happy time, the Lopez family had its share of tragedies.

The Lopez matriarch, Isabel, died of tuberculosis in 1933 when Manuel was 6 years old. Soon after, the deadly disease claimed the eldest brother as well. Later, a baby brother died.

At the time, thousands died from the highly contagious disease, which had no cure.

By the age of 12, Lopez was in and out of the hospital, battling the disease that had killed his mother and older brother.

His personality was perhaps molded during those years when, instead of running around with other kids, Lopez was in a hospital or resting at home, reading and studying.


He credits his optimism--and the discovery of antibiotics--for his recovery, although he lost one lung at the age of 24 due to the ravages of the disease.

“I didn’t know any better and I never thought of not making it. I’ve always been a very positive person,” Lopez said. “And I have been blessed with an inordinate amount of energy.”


That attitude has often come in handy.

Without a hint of resentment, Lopez vividly remembers the days in Oxnard when Mexicans were required to sit on the balcony of a segregated theater and when city covenants prohibited the sale of homes in certain neighborhoods to Mexicanos. He recalls many of his teachers physically punishing his classmates for speaking Spanish.

But Lopez did not linger on the negative and instead focused his efforts on going to college and eventually becoming an optometrist. He was a self-motivator, recalls his sister, Ruth Torres.

“He has always been very ambitious,” Torres said. “I think that the fact that we lost our mother at a very young age really pushed us. It was a matter of survival and we’ve all done well.”

When he decided to study optometry, Lopez found scholarship money and enrolled at UC Berkeley. Upon graduating, he came back to Oxnard and established himself as the first Spanish-speaking optometrist in the city.


In Oxnard, he noticed the woefully low number of Latinos involved in civic and political life. And that was the spark that lighted his political fire.

After a stint on the Planning Commission, Lopez was recruited by Reginald Vela, one of the pioneering Latino leaders in Oxnard politics.

Politics turned out to be a fateful force in Lopez’s personal life, too. It was on the campaign trail that he met the woman who became his wife, Irma.


Involved with voter registration drives, Irma Lopez said she remembers the enthusiasm people felt when he announced his candidacy. Soon the two began dating and they married within a year.

Though they may seem like an odd couple--she an outspoken child of the activist Chicano movement while he is of a generation that emphasized compromise over confrontation--they share a passion for politics and learn from each other’s different approaches.

“He has taught me that everyone has a role to play and that everyone should do what they are comfortable with,” said Irma Lopez. “People need to take a stand, but you don’t have to scream and yell about it.”


But there was a time in his political career when Irma Lopez wanted her husband to push harder than he was willing or able to go.

After the 1992 election, Lopez found himself in the minority, unable to veto motions or lobby any council allies on several important issues.

So, on many controversial issues, he did what any desperate and savvy mayor would do--he went to the press.

On a proposal to bring a 50,000-square-foot casino to Oxnard, Lopez was the first councilman to stand firmly against the idea. Some council members were wavering and others supported the idea.

Lopez publicly urged residents to show up at council chambers “to stop this threat to the quality of life in Oxnard.”

Because of crushing public opposition and the district attorney’s investigation of corruption allegations, the entire council voted to kill the casino project.


In another highly publicized battle, Lopez called a press conference to decry a proposal to merge police and fire services. The ensuing public outcry caused that idea to be shelved but also drew the ire of his fellow councilmen, all four of whom supported the merger.

“I know there is a price to pay, and that is that I will be ostracized by the other council members,” said Lopez. “So you have to weigh the pros and cons about it. If I go to the press, I do so because I know that the position I am espousing is a total loser on the council.”


Sometimes, however, Lopez ended up voting with the majority on matters he opposed but did not want to continue battling. This brought some anger and frustration from council observers. But in the end, even those critics say they understood the mayor’s predicament.

“The mayor is mayor by title only,” said Steve Buratti, president of the Inter Neighborhood Council and frequent critic of the City Council. “Basically it is a ceremonial title. Manuel tries his best to do a good job for the city and sometimes he gets stonewalled.”

But others, while understanding that his position is a powerless one, say the mayor could be more outspoken.

“He is a good guy,” said developer Stanley Moorman. “But a lot can be done just by saying, ‘This ain’t right,’ even if you don’t have any real power. He is not proactive. He is not confrontational. . . . That is still a deficiency.”


But lately, Lopez has shown a willingness to change, spearheading actions that other council members oppose. In the fall, he chastised then-City Manager Frutchey for not informing him before signing an agreement between city staff and a minor league baseball team.

This year, Lopez led the charge to fire Frutchey. Now the district attorney’s office is investigating charges that Lopez and two other council members might have violated the Brown Act when they discussed terminating Frutchey’s contract at a city retreat in January.

Lopez maintains they did nothing illegal, that the closed session was an open meeting and that the investigation is sour grapes.

“I think it is an investigation that is based on people being unhappy with the results,” he said, “so they are looking for things to point to as being wrong.”

Undeterred in his activism, Lopez said he will continue to lobby against an incentive program in which half a dozen Parks and Facilities employees received more than $6,000 in city bonuses. At this time, only Zaragoza has stated his opposition to the program.

In addition, Lopez said he wants a review of each department and how many consultants the city has hired in the past four years.


It seems that, for the time being, Lopez can enjoy a mandate he has never had before, according to some political observers.

“I think maybe more people are respecting his counsel and his wisdom . . . a little more in the past,” said Bill Higgins, Lopez’s former campaign manager.

Though Irma Lopez says she would like her husband to retire soon, Lopez is unsure of when that day will come. Community politics is a passion he has found hard to give up.

“Local government has been a challenge to me and it is still a challenge,” Lopez said. “I consider myself a student of local government. When I take positions or do things, I try not to do it based on what is good right now but rather what is good for the long term.”