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