Agran Machine Blows Gasket

Death of the man they called The Knife raises questions about Larry Agrans political future

In late 2005, fate did for Irvine Republicans what they couldn't do for themselves: derailed Larry Agran's political machine. Lobbyist Ed Dornan, Agran's most trusted confidant and top operative, died of natural causes at the age of 66.

Dornan's mid-December death will undoubtedly affect Agran's high-profile political career—he's probably the county's most electable progressive—but also development of the county's largest public works project, the Great Park, where Agran, in his dual capacity as Irvine councilmember and park board chairman, exercises imperial control.

Irvine is conservative Republican territory, and Agran is a temperamental, old-school liberal shackled by the dark neuroses that brought down Nixon—the paranoia, the sense of inevitable martyrdom, the arrogance and pettiness. How did he get elected? Just as Nixon had Haldeman, Agran relied almost exclusively on Dornan to carry out his dirty work. Dornan solicited contributions from businesses with matters pending at City Hall, orchestrated smear campaigns against opponents, threatened investigative reporters with lawsuits, created business entities to profit quietly from city business and funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions into the political system. The two men managed a Chicago-style machine, shamelessly touting themselves as good-government reformers safeguarding Irvine from corruption.

In politics, however, nothing means more than money. That's why questions about how Agran has kept power inevitably lead to Dornan, whose nickname—among friends, mind you—was fittingly "The Knife." A few weeks before his operative's death, Agran told KUCI talk show host Cameron Jackson that he's "in the persuasion game"—convincing voters that he's got their best interests at heart.

Much of that convincing was done through the Hometown Voter Guide (HVG), a slate mailer run by Dornan, who slyly circumvented campaign contribution limits because—wink, wink—he was independent of Agran. The largest single contributor ($50,000) to HVG in the last election was Ray Chaikin, who—wink, wink—is a longtime Agran pal and businessman hoping to win government contracts at the city's Great Park project. In the weeks before every city election, mailboxes are flooded each day with the theoretically independent HVG's claims of Agran's saintliness. Enough gullible voters have bought it, returning him and his allies to the council in the last three campaigns.

But on the verge of the city's critical 2006 elections Agran is without his Haldeman. Will he try to recruit another consigliere to handle the machine's largesse? Or has his ego grown so much that he now thinks he can operate the scam on his own?

rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com

 
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