Illustration by Bob AulIn the 1970s, Tom Rogers was head of the Orange County Republican Party, but he went on to become a legend in the slow-growth movement. He was a part of the effort to stop the toll roads and an author of the 1988 county initiative to slow growth. His switch from GOP chief to green surprised some people, but it wasn't really a switch. Rogers is a South County rancher who reveres the land, and his lifelong commitment to Barry Goldwater conservatism—as opposed to Richard Nixon's big-government brand—makes him a natural ally of environmentalists.
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Because he's seen county politics from both sides, he's also been a great source for Orange County reporters—all the better because of his no-bullcrap vernacular and stinging wit. In his new book, Agents' Orange, Rogers has made his first effort to download his wide knowledge of county history and politics. It's a valuable resource for anyone who wants to know the county's real power brokers: the developers, lobbyists, consultants and officials. There are chapters detailing the county's money-burning toll roads, the $1.7 billion bankruptcy, and a long, disturbing outline of all the city and county officials who've found themselves in the courts in the past 40 years. Rogers has also included Shirley Grindle's analysis of the county's campaign-finance laws—laws Grindle herself wrote.
Through it all, Rogers shows exactly how developers such as the Irvine Co.'s Gary Hunt and bazillionaire George Argyros have converted what is nominally a democratic county government into an engine to power their respective financial empires. But Rogers also provides an excellent breakdown of the other side—the activists and volunteers who have spent the past four decades hammering away at that monster.
Rogers might have written a very different book and perhaps an even better one: One Angry Cowboy—The Tom Rogers Story, maybe. Rogers' still-powerful mind (he's got to be nearing 80) looms over Agents' Orange; but this book lacks what an autobiography might have revealed: not just a mind capable of bridging political boundaries, but also the heart of a man willing to stand up to the members of his own political party—some of the most powerful people in the county. Rogers is the man who put "conserve" back into "conservative." His fascinating personal story—his role in shaping both Republican politics and slow-growth activism—remains untold.
AGENTS' ORANGE: THE UNABRIDGED POLITICAL HISTORY OF ORANGE COUNTY 1960-2000 BY THOMAS C. ROGERS. 477 pages, softcover. TO GET A COPY, SEND $29 TO TOM ROGERS, 29361 SPOTTED BULL WAY, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, CA 92675.