SNOWBIRDS OF PREY
Snowbirds! Arizona merchants love em, Arizona motorists hate em, Steve Benson lampoons em. Beyond that, they're fairly unobtrusive to most Valley residents.
But in Arizona's hinterlands, snowbirds are a much bigger deal--economically, socially and, increasingly, politically.
Consider the case of sparsely populated Mohave County--an area the size of Massachusetts with a population of only 110,000 full-time residents. More than 80,000 snowbirds arrive each winter, nearly doubling the county's population.
One-quarter of Mohave County's snowbirds park their RVs and trailers next to the Colorado River for at least half a year. Since one can register to vote after 29 days' residency in Arizona, that makes them eligible to vote. And that means big trouble for local politicians.
"Those are the people who threw my butt out of office," says Charles "Chuck" Langerveld, Lake Havasu City's ex-mayor.
He's not alone. The snowbird vote is viewed as a primary cause of political instability that has plagued Mohave County for years. Communities on Arizona's west coast recall mayors as a matter of course.
Since the Lake Havasu City Council stopped appointing mayors and the voters began selecting them in the mid-Eighties, every mayor has been subjected to a recall election, and two have actually been ousted. There have also been two recalls removing four city councilmembers in that span.
Things are just as volatile in Kingman and Bullhead City, which has had ten city managers in eight years.
Langerveld says snowbirds are behind the epidemic of recalls and administrative purges along the Colorado.
"This older, very selfish generation . . . there's a lot of things they don't want," he says. "You can see the 'Sun City syndrome' in any city where they're more than 35 percent of the population."
"I know the older voter votes," says Pat Hold, a veteran Mohave County supervisor. "Along the river, we're not longtime communities. Everyone who lives here came from somewhere else, and they brought their ideas with them."
Mike Love, embattled mayor of Bullhead City, has seen his city council endure two recalls in the past three years.
"I've been the subject of two [recall] attempts," Love says. "Right now, it seems to be kind of a trend. They can recall you cause you don't comb your hair right.
"We just elected two new councilmembers. I think as soon as [the minimum] six months are up, they're going to file [recall] papers on them, too."
Anne Sayne, Lake Havasu City's clerk for more than a decade, doesn't think of snowbirds as winter visitors. "They're just people who live here that go away for the summer," she says.
Sayne is right. A study by researchers at Arizona State University found that "significant numbers" of snowbirds arrive in Arizona by Columbus Day and stay through Easter. "The lifestyle of most long-term winter visitors is much more like part-time versions of Phoenix-area retired married-couple households than elderly tourists," the researchers wrote.
According to the ASU survey, the typical Arizona snowbird couple is made up of a 69-year-old male and his 67-year-old wife. They're from the Midwest, and half live in mobile homes or RVs while they're in Arizona. Their household income is about $32,000 per year. They're most likely to arrive in October, November or January, and more than half will leave in April.
Of course, some of the political upheaval along the river must be attributed to the officials themselves. One recently departed Bullhead City manager appointed himself chief of police.
Langerveld's swift fall from grace came after he endorsed an ordinance to set rules for RV parking--an act akin to serving bacon at a bar mitzvah. The reaction was abrupt and final, as graying activists came out with a vengeance. Langerveld was recalled, and the RV ordinance was defeated, as well.
"Those people, they're of that 'we don't want to do anything' mindset," Langerveld says. "Just leave everything alone. The thing that makes me angry is that they sit home and say, 'I'm on a fixed income.' I'd like to have their fixed income. They're the guys who get on the bus as soon as their social security checks come in and go up to Laughlin.
"There's not much we can do about it out here," Langerveld adds. "But I think the state legislature has a chance to make recall a little more difficult."
Love thinks the snowbirds are simply bored, and that political intrigue spices up their lives.
"People who come here to retire really don't have much to do," he says. "But they have all the answers.
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