Man Bites Dogma

Orange County lost one of its premier politicos this week with the untimely passing of Irvine's Ed Dornan. A former Irvine planning commissioner and member of the Irvine City Council (1987-1990), Ed Dornan was probably best known as the strategic and financial architect of Larry Agran's improbable rise to political dominance in a city where Republicans still outnumber Democrats by a margin of three to two. But Dornan's lasting legacy will undoubtedly be his creation of something called the Hometown Voter Guide, or HVG.

The HVG was the mechanism used both to inject obscene amounts of money into Irvine elections and to carpet bomb mailboxes in Irvine during campaign time with a nearly unending torrent of direct political mail. Through the HVG, these sums could then be used to blanket the city with direct-mail messages lauding Agran and his slate of candidates while lambasting the opposition.

Without question, the Hometown Voter Guide fundamentally and probably unalterably changed the landscape of how elections in Irvine were to be run and won. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, electoral politics in Irvine had a grass-roots, volunteer, retail quality to it, especially the campaigns run by the Agran political machine. During this period, Dornan was as likely organizing the growing and distribution of herbs to hand out to homes throughout the city as he was crafting political pamphlets for volunteers to distribute at so-called “dawn marches” through the city.

But starting in the mid-1990s, first with “Project 99,” the Agran-led campaign to help defeat county plans for development of an international airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps Base, and then with Agran's election to the City Council in 1998, Irvine's electoral politics became decidedly wholesale. While candidates could and would still canvass the city on foot in search of votes, the real action in the elections of 1998, 2000, 2002, and 2004 focused on raising large sums of campaign capital through the Hometown Voter Guide. It was all within the strictures of state and local campaign finance regulations, if only by the thinnest of legal justifications. Hundreds of thousands of dollars would now be raised and spent—not on growing herbs for voluntary distribution to voter households, but on dozens of glossy, multi-colored pieces of direct mail to celebrate the virtuous and excoriate the unworthy.

I was there. I saw it. I participated in it. I knew Ed for about 18 years; for most of that time we worked together planning and orchestrating campaigns involving Larry Agran and other like-minded candidates. I helped author many of the less than flattering appraisals of “our” opponents during the elections of '98, '00, and '02.

But that changed after I opposed the way in which then-Mayor Agran seemed to be using his office to the potential personal benefit of his close friend and campaign guru Ed Dornan. Additionally, I objected to the way in which now Councilman Agran and Mayor Beth Krom reacted to public criticisms of such deals by then Councilman Chris Mears.

During my last face-to-face conversation with Ed back in early September 2004, he told me he would “do anything, anything to make sure that Larry Agran was re-elected to office.” Because of the political earthquake taking place within the Agran machine, I asked Ed why. Not surprisingly, he told me of his devotion to, affection for, and admiration of Larry Agran, sentiments I understood and once fully shared. Ed and I would have a few rough phone conversations over the next few weeks of that campaign season as I apparently committed the unforgivable sin of endorsing non-Agran aligned candidates in the November election. In the end Ed got his wish, Larry Agran was elected yet again to the City Council and the Hometown Voter Guide helped carry two additional, Agran-aligned candidates to office, giving Agran a user-friendly council-majority.

Ed and I were friends, sometimes even good friends, and then we weren't.

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