Members of an influential voting bloc in Ventura defy virtually every stereotype of the politically powerful.
They do not make large campaign contributions. They do not run big companies. They do not hold influential positions.
Most are retired, many live on fixed incomes and more than half are female.
Their political muscle stems from the fact that they live in the manufactured housing known as mobile homes.
United by a shared interest in controlling rent at the parks in which they reside, Ventura's 2,300 mobile-home owners have come to form a bloc that is widely regarded as the single most decisive factor in municipal elections.
With 14 candidates running for three seats on the Ventura City Council next month, the coach dwellers are again at the center of the election flurry, their support anxiously courted by many council hopefuls.
After quizzing the candidates by mail-in questionnaire and holding a forum last week at the Marina Mobile Home Park, leaders of the city's mobile-home owners are expected to take out a newspaper advertisement later this month to announce their endorsement.
Mobile-Home Owners' Endorsement Coveted
"It's awesome," said council candidate Richard Francis, a local attorney. "They form the most significant voting bloc in Ventura. With their endorsement, your chances of winning are significantly improved and, without it, they are significantly hampered."
City officials and mobile-home leaders estimate that an endorsement by the group can command from 2,000 to 3,000 votes, as much as one-third to one-half of what is needed to win a municipal election, based on recent voter turnout.
Of the 14 council candidates the mobile-home owners have backed since the 1979 election, 13 have won.
"You have to recognize that we were thought of as second-class citizens at one time, that we could be pushed around," said Mildred Kassin, a leading organizer of the mobile-home vote.
"Now we need to be heard and we need to be recognized and we need to be dealt with the same as any other group," she said. "Call it 'clout' if you like. I don't go around saying it, but you can say it."
The rise to power of Ventura's mobile-home owners began in the late 1970s as they began to feel the pinch of soaring space rents at mobile-home parks throughout the city. Scott Pruyn, an early leader of the group, said his rent was raised from $175 a month to $289 a month from 1976 to 1980.
The first attempt by mobile-home owners to control rents at the parks was rejected in 1978 by City Council. The next year, however, owners for the first time collectively endorsed three council candidates--John McWherter, Dennis Orrock and Harriet Kosmo-Henson. All three were elected.
"I was sympathetic to them," said McWherter, who is seeking reelection Nov. 3. "I could see what was happening. In the city of Ventura, the mobile-home parks had a monopoly and the park owners were running wild."
Led by McWherter, the council in 1981 unanimously passed a mobile-home rent stabilization ordinance aimed at curbing park owners' "unbridled discretion" and "ability to exploit mobile-home park tenants."
Under the ordinance, park owners are limited to raising rents in two ways. The first is a discretionary increase for housing services, which include expenses for utilities, maintenance and administrative costs. The other is an annual 7% increase, or 75% of the consumer-price index, whichever is smaller.
All requests for rent increases must be approved by a five-member Rent Review Board, appointed by the council and composed of citizens with no financial interest in mobile homes or mobile-home parks.
Council Is Formed
At the same time the ordinance was being discussed, the mobile-home owners were continuing to consolidate their voice.
Each of the 10 parks affected by the rent-control plan elected a representative. Those representatives formed the Ventura City Mobilehome Owners Coordinating Council, a body responsible for organizing the group and making all political endorsements.
"Ventura is one of the leaders when it comes to forming a political-action committee, where they unite and support candidates," said Francis Packard, regional director for the Golden State Mobilehome Owners League, a statewide organization representing 432,000 of California's mobile-home owners. "Their actions have been copied in other areas of the state."
Elsewhere in the county, Oxnard, Camarillo, Santa Paula, Ojai, Fillmore, Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village and Simi Valley, as well as the County of Ventura, all regulate mobile-home park rents either through rent-stabilization ordinances, rent-review boards or arbitration boards.
Among them, however, Ventura's mobile-home community has distinguished itself as a particular obstacle for park owners.
Earlier this year, when park owners sought permission to raise rents by about 10% for new tenants in mobile-home parks, the mobile-home owners filled the Ventura City Council chambers and saw to it that the request was denied.