VENTURA — Deep in the shadowed darkness of a lemon orchard in east Ventura an alarm clock goes off.
It's 5:30 a.m.
City Council candidate Brian Lee Rencher sits up stiffly, and takes a hungry drag on his first cigarette.
Shivering, he rolls up the thin square of plastic that serves as his ground cloth, and folds his single wool blanket.
Still slow with sleep, he loads up his bicycle--a shiny red mountain bike weighed down by more than 90 pounds of bags.
One dangles from his left handlebar--city budget, city financial reports. Another dangles from his right--campaign literature, precinct maps and food.
He leaves no trace.
With thorny lemon branches and dry eucalyptus leaves crackling underfoot, Rencher rolls his bicycle to the road nearby.
This is a day on Rencher's campaign trail. And it's a trail unlike any other.
"There's not that much difference between me and other people," says Rencher as he coasts down the sidewalk of Telephone Road in the chilly predawn. "Except I don't pay rent, and I ride a bicycle."
But there is a big difference. Rencher is homeless.
Wedged between five-term incumbent Jim Monahan and motorcycle editor Mike Osborn on the official roster of City Council candidates, Rencher is one of 10 people seeking three seats.
Rencher's listed address is 1300 Saratoga Ave., Unit 1801. That's the home of a friend where he picks up his mail. He has only slept there once.
His listed phone numbers--he thought it would look better to have two--are the numbers of friends. He calls in daily to pick up messages.
And his listed profession--business consultant/researcher--has earned him only $90 in the last two years.
But under a landmark 1985 court decision establishing the right of homeless people to vote, it appears legal for Rencher to run for office.
The city clerk's office sees no problem, as long as he is registered to vote.
This is Rencher's third bid for a City Council seat.
"Most of the people making the rules in our society are wealthy," Rencher, 37, says. "I think the poor people want to have something to say about how they are governed as well. That's why I'm running."
He has pawned most of his possessions to produce his campaign literature and has sunk $375 of his own money into the campaign.
That leaves him with barely enough money to eat, he says. Sometimes he goes for days without food.
This day, at 5:45 a.m., he is off to Vons. He cruises the deserted supermarket aisles purposefully, carefully clipped coupons in hand. He buys ham, a loaf of Roman Meal bread, mayonnaise, Korn Nuts and a V-8 juice, for $5.94.
This will last him several days.
Then it's off to International House of Pancakes on Victoria Avenue to brush his teeth, and a short downhill ride to radio station KTRO for a 7 a.m. candidate's interview.
Seated in the tiny soundproof radio station, interviewer Tom Spence quizzes Rencher on his views, his life, his work.
"So, if you ride your bike everywhere, you must live in pretty close proximity to work," says Spence.
Rencher deftly dodges the question and steers the conversation toward policy issues.
By 8 a.m., Rencher is hard at work at Stanley and Co., an advertising, public relations and interactive marketing firm. He is seated behind a glass-topped table--a phone at his fingertips, a pile of papers before him.
His boss, Jennifer Knudsen, says she hired Rencher as a temporary telemarketer out of a field of eight applicants for what she saw as his unique skills.
"He has a very good telephone voice," she says. "And he's very good at improvisation--at getting around a question he doesn't know the answer to."
Asked directly about his living situation, Rencher does not lie. But he does not advertise it, either.
It's like the business suit he often wears during election season. It's something to make other people more at ease.
"I've learned to add a little bit of fluff," he says. "I don't like to think of it as lying. It's to create those perceptions for other people's benefit--because they don't feel comfortable."
But for Rencher, homelessness is a fact of life. When his father remarried 18 years ago, Rencher was kicked out of his home in Camarillo. He says he has been on the street every year of the last 18, except one. He says he spends $10,000 a year on school.
He's currently getting his master of business administration degree at the University of La Verne in Oxnard. He would rather spend his money on education than rent, he says.
There have been at least two other homeless council candidates in Southern California. But they played up their plight and campaigned as advocates for people who live the hard life on the street.
Rencher does not sell himself that way.
He campaigns as much about balancing the city budget, fixing Ventura's cracked streets and building a park in east Ventura as he does about helping the homeless.
Rencher lives a sort of double life, moving between offices and the orchards where he sleeps--fooling many who come in contact with him because he is clean, well-read and diligent.