By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
It's less well-known that Agran is funny. He and I briefly considered writing a film script about a conspiracy theorist who believes that a horse killed Jack Kennedy—and is proved right. Agran had a mutual friend laughing so hard once that the friend—a well-groomed man in a suit—farted.
But what made him huge was his critique of Reagan- and Bush-era politics. When the Berlin Wall came down, Agran called for a peace dividend—immediate cuts in foreign-based troops and big-ticket weapons systems, a multibillion-dollar tax refund, and a boost in social spending. He was dedicated enough to such change that he'd speak anywhere, to anyone. One summer morning, we drove north on the 405 through traffic as hot and dense as the inside of a rock, headed for a speaking engagement at a benighted IHOP in a nondescript LA suburb—Torrance, maybe. We arrived late. Agran apologized, and then told the group of mostly conservative local officials that Republican spending priorities—big on the Pentagon, penurious at home—were upside down. "What does it mean," he ad-libbed, "that our country can launch a nuclear missile from beneath the Rocky Mountains and guarantee that it'll land inside the Kremlin within 15 minutes, but we can't with any certainty get a commuter from Orange County to LA in under an hour?" The audience mumbled—whether in agreement or because of the chocolate chip pancakes, I couldn't say—and then Agran dropped the punch line: "One guy breaks a fan belt, and half a million people are late for work." And then they loved him.
That was Agran's gig in the '80s—pointing out that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were bankrupting the nation's cities while spending billions in a global war against a communist threat that hadn't existed for years. If you were the mayor of any reasonably sized U.S. city, it was mourning in America. Funding for local programs that had helped reduce child poverty, illiteracy and mortality was slashed; in a weird meeting of the far left's fascination with mental illness as performance art and the right wing's hatred of social services because they defied the logic of the marketplace, the homeless were released in the thousands onto potholed streets. The culture war that now seems like weather—a force of nature beyond our control, a brutalizing context—erupted with attacks on gays, the left, liberals, non-Christians, working women, single women, women. The deficit yawned wide.
And Agran—a diminutive, bespectacled intellectual—rode the rising tide of liberal anger. The ride came to an end when he proposed a city ordinance to extend civil rights protections to gays and lesbians. Irvine's far-right activists lost what little was left of their minds and promised to run him out of office.
The evangelical threat was serious. We may have missed the warning signs then, but Sept. 11 has since taught us that a even a small number of people can kill you—figuratively or literally—when they believe they not only talk to God but that God is talking back. And so we gathered at Agran's home to consider: to continue with the gay civil-rights ordinance or to bail. When I counseled caution, Agran turned on me. He stood, his face reddening, and told me blankly, "We got elected to use our power to do the right thing." Then he smiled and did a little boxer's shuffle. He swung his fists at shadowy conservatives, delivered a little jab—and knocked us out. Here was a liberal unashamed of his power. We would have followed him anywhere.
Anywhere turned out to be defeat. The decision to go ahead with the equal-rights amendment was Agran's Vietnam.
Agran had made his rep fighting the Irvine Co., cultivating outraged voters wherever the company cranked up its bulldozers. And while the company spent lavishly to defeat Agran, it didn't have the people. With a few hours' notice, Agran could mobilize a hundred supporters to walk precincts; while the company focus-grouped, surveyed opinion and sought the counsel of high-powered consultants, Agran was in the streets.
But in 1990, with the gay-rights ordinance on the ballot, the company suddenly had Christian foot soldiers. They won, if only narrowly. Agran packed up his office at City Hall and left, defeated in a local race for the first time in 12 years.
You get to know a man well when you spend a few nights with him at the Aberdeen, when your kids are raised around his election campaigns, when your friends are his friends, when you ride with him to what seems like political death (I was also a marginal player in his idealistic 1992 run for the White House) and then into resurrection (I watched hopefully from the sidelines when he ran and won a seat on the Irvine City Council in 1998—Larry Phase II).
I knew—know—Larry Agran.
But Agran's more recent bullshit at City Hall—the deals he's made with Republican consultants, the contracts that benefit friends—suggests that sometime between his valiant run for the White House and his re-election in 1998, Agran decided that power was more important than principle. He began by accepting money from Irvine Co. executives and quickly followed by declaring an end to the land-development wars of the 1980s. Company executives held fund-raisers for the man they'd vilified for years; he appeared in a company-produced video honoring company chairman Donald Bren, a video the company delivered to every home in the city.