Editing a Paper in Your Hometown

Photo by Davis BarberAPHORISMS

There's an aphorism for almost everything—including one that says, "An aphorism is never exactly truthful; it is either a half-truth or a truth and a half." So there's got to be an aphorism that covers the job of editing a newspaper in the town where you live, something like the admonition that it's unwise to shit where you eat, but more particular to newspapering, though it might suit cops who patrol their own neighborhoods too, a truth and a half that would describe the mix of sadness and rage they might feel when they're dispatched to a disturbance and find, like, maybe the local minister drinking whiskey from a bottle and randomly firing a pistol into a school playground of absolutely freaked-out children, their tiny hands swatting hopelessly at the air.

I'm thinking here about news stories we've run revealing that Larry Agran—often, since the late 1970s, Irvine's mayor, now one of its council members—is not the man we thought he was.

Or—and this is more nuanced—that he is that man, and more.

For the past year or so, the Weekly's R. Scott Moxley has uncovered evidence that puts Agran at the center of backroom deals that would enrich his friends. Agran has said little that clarifies these arrangements, but his surrogates have, in one way or another, asked me, "How could you stab Larry in the back?"

The question correctly implies a number of things: that the Weekly is a lefty paper, and Agran is supposed to be a lefty—maybe the county's most famous, longest-lived lefty—and if there's honor among the thieves in the White House, there ought to be something like it among progressives.

Most importantly, it occasionally recognizes that Agran was my friend.

I say "was" because the relationship evaporated in 2004 when Moxley uncovered Agran's role in a Great Park scandal worthy of Orange County's largest public-works project ever. In one case, documents show and sources say Agran directed a lucrative, no-bid contract to a utility firm with unpublicized ties to his longtime friend and adviser, a retired Orange Coast College English professor named Ed Dornan. Moxley also discovered that several Agran supporters, including Dornan, have created a number of companies whose goal seems to be to capitalize on Agran's position on the powerful board that will build the Great Park. Documents and sources indicate that in yet another case the Great Park Conservancy, the nonprofit, non-governmental group Agran established to organize popular support for the Great Park, padded by $20,000 its bid to inventory trees on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. More recently, Moxley has shown that Agran has persuaded his allies on the Great Park board to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for the services of political consultants tied to the county's nearly omnipotent Republican establishment.

A BRIEF HISTORY

For more than a decade Larry Agran was my friend, mentor and role model. A man of great intellect, good humor and honesty, Agran brought me out of graduate school at UC Irvine and into local politics. He paid me to do good work—in affordable housing, recycling, land preservation, civil rights and even foreign affairs. He introduced me to many of the people who would become my best friends.

Another aphorism has it that familiarity breeds contempt, but the closer I got to Agran, the more I admired him. In the late 1980s, I traveled with him all over the country, heard him speak about good government to crowds in Portland, Seattle, Santa Barbara, Chicago and the Twin Cities. In New York City, we stayed in a hotel called the Aberdeen that seemed to house German tourists, the homeless and us—all above what smelled and sounded like a kosher slaughterhouse. His only vice at the time—he didn't drink or smoke; in restaurants, he feigned nausea whenever seated too close to smokers—was his love of the television show Law & Order. When our hotel television didn't work, the Aberdeen staff rolled in a second and placed it atop the corpse of its predecessor. That night at the Aberdeen, when a roach moved like a bumper car across the TV screen, I screamed like a girl-child. Agran joked about similarities between lawyers and roaches. The next day, he spoke at a peace conference at the city's famed Riverside Church, and when he described his vision for a foreign policy designed around what he called "Main Street," 800 of them stood and cheered. Someone there—it might have been Noam Chomsky—called him America's Mayor.

It's well-known that Agran is smart; he graduated from Berkeley and Harvard Law, of course, but there's more to it than that: he has amazing political smarts, the kind I've seen in people like Bob Dornan and right-wing radio's Hugh Hewitt. Agran's like that, capable of generating intimacy with strangers on the basis of a brief handshake. You don't find many Democrats getting elected in Republican strongholds, but by the time I met him in 1986, Agran had been elected three times to the Irvine City Council. His secret: he effortlessly translated the politics of environmentalism into the politics of Republican homeownership. Where lefties heard "clean water" and "open space," conservatives heard "rising home equity"; they were both right. In his many years at City Hall, he established one of the nation's first curbside recycling programs; drafted and passed a measure that banned the production and use of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in the city—and became the model for a global ban; implemented an ambitious and wildly successful public housing program; created city-funded child care; and bargained so aggressively with the Irvine Co. that Irvine now includes an abundance of permanently preserved open space.

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