The New Hugh
Welcome to Irvine, City of Irony. Much of it was on display April 11 in the city's tea-party fistfight over a parcel tax designed to fund Irvine's financially strapped school district.
Parcel taxes are usually a bore, but the battle over this one was a dark, comic farce. Facing a $5 million shortfall in next year's budget, the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) wanted Irvine voters to pass a 16-year, $95 annual tax on each piece of property (or "parcel") in the city.
The campaign was remarkable for a host of reasons: the money-hungry school district scheduled the vote for the day after property taxes were due at the county treasurer's office (April 10) and only a few days before federal and state income taxes must be paid (April 15); what is supposed to be a fiscally conservative school district is broke; and one of the richest cities in the county is crying poor—for the children, of course. Voters awoke Wednesday to news that the proposed tax had lost by a mere 800 votes.
But nothing was more remarkable than Hugh Hewitt's position on the tax: he was for it. And not just for it. Along with well-known Lefty and City Councilman Larry Agran, Hewitt was the parcel tax's most ardent proponent.
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This was ironic in so many ways. Hewitt was the founding director of the Nixon Library and Birthplace and is a radio and TV talking head, a developer's attorney, and a Chapman University law professor. And, thanks to all this—and a permanent seat on the right-wing side of the public-television news show Life & Times—he is arguably the most recognizable political personality in the county.
He has used these positions to become well-known as a conservative, family-values Republican; a vocal opponent of taxation; a seasoned and successful critic of environmental regulations and government bureaucracy; and a self-declared "voice of reason" on growth and development. He's also an articulate, dependable and extremely polished mouthpiece for local GOP commandant Tom Fuentes. But in word and deed, the new Hugh Hewitt is a liberal, if only in his own back yard.
There he was last month, doing battle against his friends—perhaps former friends, now—over the parcel tax, dismissing his erstwhile allies as "rote, teeth-grinding anti-taxers." Hewitt argued in the course of the parcel-tax fight that "genuine conservatives are obliged to conserve what works, and the IUSD works."
That would make a compelling decision rule indeed: if it works, conserve it. But it wasn't long ago that the operational motto of contemporary conservatism—and of Hugh Hewitt in particular—was radically different: the best government is that which governs least.
Hewitt's enemies reasonably asked: If IUSD is working so well, why does it need each property owner to cough up $95 in each of the next 16 years to prevent draconian layoffs and program cutbacks?
In answer, Hewitt offered the perfect conservative analysis—which is to say he alternately blamed others (school officials in Sacramento and LA, but never, ever the local school board) and offered no analysis at all, preferring instead to design a campaign long on scream and short on actual blood and guts. Instead of explaining why the IUSD found itself upside-down, Hewitt chose to stay on message: kill this tax at the polls, and Irvine student IQs will collapse along with the city's now-booming housing market.
Though a frequent critic of the Los Angeles Times for its alleged liberal tendencies, Hewitt holds the editorial-page staff of the conservative Orange County Register responsible for beating a similar parcel tax last November. The Register "beat the tax single-handedly by allocating its editorial-page staff to unfairly tilt presentation. It's that simple." It was more complicated than that, actually, but what was remarkable here was seeing Hewitt at war with his former allies: the Register, the new Hewitt opined, "has defined itself as an enemy of public education; it's time to stop delivery."
A boycott? Yes, Hewitt wrote in the OC Metro in November 1999: "Let your market power do your talking. Drop the paper."
Condemnation of the Register's editorial page and advocacy of a boycott? Hewitt has certainly come a long way.
In recent months, Hewitt has shown himself more liberal than anyone—including, one presumes, Hewitt himself —seems prepared to admit. And not just on taxes and public education, but on development and the environment, too.
Long a supporter of a commercial airport at El Toro, Hewitt was a vocal proponent of 1994's Measure A (to build an international airport at El Toro) and an equally forceful critic of 1996's Measure S (to reverse Measure A). During those campaigns, he wrote in the OC Metro, "A thriving commercial airport [at El Toro] probably will add value to every single home in South County by generating great jobs and thus housing demand." Then he crossed no-man's land to join the war against it—just in time for anti-airport Measure F's victory on March 7. He now accuses county officials of moving so quickly and undemocratically that they alienated South County voters.
But neither of these flip-flops matches the moment when Hewitt took on the Irvine Co. last year. As a real-estate attorney, Hewitt has long represented the region's wealthy landowners. Working for the Building Industry Association and numerous individual developers, he has beaten back efforts by environmental groups to use the Endangered Species Act throughout Southern California (see the LA Times, June 1, 1990). The gnatcatcher? The kangaroo rat? Stupidly named beasts whose existence was far less important than the rights of the developers he represented. He has been a consistent proponent of all development everywhere. For Hewitt, there were always only two choices: "environmental extremism" and "economic sense."
But then, in the spring of 1999, Hewitt became a leader in the community struggle against the Irvine Co.'s development of what is locally known as Planning Area 27—a rolling, pastoral piece of land almost literally in Hewitt's Turtle Rock back yard. He fought the company with a fervor a Leftist could only envy, turning Planning Area 27 into a moral issue: "[T]he [Irvine] Company has recognized that its stature in Irvine is crumbling," he wrote in the OC Metro. "The camouflage of concern for the 'master plan' is gone." He even accused the company of pulling political strings and abusing the freedom of the press in its company-owned community weekly, The Irvine World News.
If you have followed Hewitt at all, you will admit that you never thought you'd see such a day: Hewitt challenging a developer's right to build whatever, wherever and whenever it pleased and publicly disputing the independence of the Irvine Co.'s newspaper.
But the best moment came when Hewitt argued that the environmental-impact report for Planning Area 27 was "fatally flawed" because—of all things—it failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act, which, per Hewitt, "all but guarantees a winning legal challenge."
Planning Area 27 will still be built, but thanks to Hewitt and many others—including the diabolical forces behind the Endangered Species Act—it will be reduced in scale and impact.
But Hewitt's role in the Irvine parcel-tax battle produced the most complete illustration of the New Hugh—involving taxes, property rights, a local government agency and public education. This, after all, was the same Hewitt who argued in the Los Angeles Times that George Bush would beat Bill Clinton in 1992 because the American people are "allergic" to taxes. A few months later, Hewitt predicted in a Times essay that Pete Wilson would win re-election in 1994 because "the bottom line was the one conservatives have always demanded—a balanced budget with no new taxes." In 1995, Hewitt vanquished—in debate after debate and in the election itself—the proponents of Measure R, the proposed sales-tax hike presented as the only way for the county to survive from bankruptcy.
But taxes were only a symptom of a greater evil: big government. Observing Orange County for the Los Angeles Times, Hewitt discerned in 1992 "a county reeling under the disconnected and chaotic commands of Eastern Europe-styled ministries." "Thousands of jobs that would have been created in the home-building industry did not materialize as layer after layer of complicated regulations was piled upon proposed compromises," Hewitt argued in 1994, again in the Times. Especially intriguing, in the light of his support of the parcel tax, were his observations on the expansion of "the administrative state" in the conservative July 1998 Weekly Standard. "Especially at the local level," Hewitt observed, government is out of control "and needs new tax revenue, without which it cannot grow."
Taxes are bad. Government is always growing and grasping. And public education? The old Hewitt argued in the Times in November 1992, "Most parents are dismayed by a school system that cannot seem to improve no matter how much it is studied or how much money is thrown at it." The cure? How about vouchers? "Orange County is a hotbed for choice sentiment," Hewitt observed approvingly in 1992. A year later, when former state Senator Marian Bergeson failed to win confirmation as Wilson's state superintendent of schools, a disappointed Hewitt predicted in the OC Metro that "the voucher fight [would] take on added urgency. For if Marian Bergeson is not worth having as superintendent, then the suspicion grows that only strong medicine will cure public education's ills."
Those who believe Hewitt is still a conservative might point to another recent event: when so-called New Directions Republicans tried to purge the local party of social conservatives during the last election, Hewitt opposed them at every opportunity. But he did even that with a liberal flourish: he denounced them in the most Marxian terms as "rich, white guys."
Thus Hugh Hewitt, the Che Guevara of the ruling class.
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