Welcome to the Ronald Reagan Great Park

EXCLUSIVE! Super-secret plans are afoot to name Orange County's largest public-works project after the Great Communicator

Only one table is left at the busy 85ºC Bakery Cafe in the bustling Diamond Jamboree shopping center at Jamboree and Alton in Irvine. I slide into the seat facing the door and plop my bag on the table. There are too many tables in too small a space here; I am so pressed in I can feel an indentation being made in the back of my head by a thumbtack holding a flier on the community bulletin board behind me.

Pain is a small price to pay for my direct view of the front entrance, through which, any second now, my Irvine City Hall "Deep Throat" will waltz. Indeed, his arrival comes shortly after that of my steaming-hot cup of cream with a splash of coffee.

I won't go into too much detail describing him because I'm unsure how many city employees match his description and level of access. I'm not here to get anyone fired. Suffice it to say he's a younger veteran—well past college but nowhere near retirement age.

Trevor Keen
Trevor Keen

We lock eyes moments before he ambles over and half-whispers under his breath, "You Matt?" Except for the fact his career could be on the line by meeting with me—communication with the media in Irvine is as tightly regulated as roof-tile colors—I don't get the Spy vs. Spy stuff.

After nervous introductions, we get down to business. But something is missing.

"I thought when you called you said you'd have documents?" I ask.

"They're all right here," he says, tapping a finger to his temple. "I have a photographic memory. Won a contest once."

Cut to the chase.

"I'm about to blow your mind," he says like a stranger in a Phish concert parking lot. "Those bastards are actually going to name the Orange County Great Park after Ronald Reagan."

My informant spoke in his mile-a-minute cadence, pausing between thoughts to sometimes look right through me. Others times, he seemed to drift off, fixing his gaze for several moments over my head or shoulders. But one thing became crystal clear long before the barista called out his triple soy whatever-whatever order: He is no Reagan Republican.

"Look, I came to Irvine from the Peace Corps specifically to work for Larry Agran," he mentioned at one point.

If Irvine were Hazzard County, Agran would be Boss Hogg (for as long as Irvine Co. Chairman Donald Bren let him think he was, anyway). Agran was first elected to the Irvine City Council the same year The Deer Hunter came out, in 1978. His first time around as mayor was from 1983 to 1989, and then again from 2001 to 2005—with a failed bid for U.S. president in between (Clinton I, 1992). He's been a city councilman most years since, as Irvine's notion of term limits allows council members to return as candidates on ballots after sitting out short spells.

A number of Agran accomplishments would tickle the progressive bone of a true believer like my new friend across the table. The early Agran championed child care, recycling and affordable housing. Before global warming would become a term mocked by conservatives, Agran—way back in 1989—pushed for a model city ordinance to ban or severely restrict the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), synthetic chemicals that destroy ozone.

Throughout the Reagan presidency, the liberal Democrat blasted pretty much everything that was coming out of the White House. When the Gipper suggested more power should go to local city halls rather than the federal government, Agran sarcastically ran with it by leading his city to declare itself a nuclear-free zone and divest from South Africa—issues that were decidedly not Reaganesque.

Agran lobbied the U.S. Council of Mayors to blast Reagan for creating "a first-class military protecting a third-world economy and society" saddled "with rising levels of poverty, a declining industrial base, record levels of public and private debt, a deteriorating public-school system, a choked transportation system, and a hellish natural environment."

"He promised to cut taxes, double military spending and balance the budget," Agran said of Reagan in Sustainability magazine's January 1990 issue. "You can't do all three. While he was a candidate, he never mentioned which programs he would slash. He talked about getting rid of waste and corruption, and that sounded fine to almost everybody. What he ended up doing was destroying the federal programs upon which most cities rely to meet housing, transportation and emergency needs. He shifted the burden for several federal programs to cities and called that 'New Federalism.'"

Reagan may have been "The Great Communicator," but Agran saw himself as "The Great Populist," telling Sustainability it was him—not the president—who was with the majority of Americans who in the early 1980s opposed Reagan's misadventures in Nicaragua (60 percent) and favored a nuclear weapons freeze (70 percent to 80 percent) and granting more authority to the United Nations (70 percent).

That was then.

*     *     *

"Those bastards want to turn the Great Park into sort of a Reagan Disneyland," my informant said, just before I showered him in spit-take. "Along with the statue of Reagan being built in Newport Beach and the Reagan federal building in Santa Ana, the area in between the three spots will be known as 'The Teflon Triangle.'"

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