In June 2004, the Orange County Register published an article that was simultaneously preposterous yet prophetic. It was a profile of three mayors–Curt Pringle of Anaheim, Miguel Pulido of Santa Ana, and Irvine's Larry Agran–who had become what reporter Jeff Rowe called "the most unusual of political allies." The story hailed their partnership as a lesson for a county that had moved past suburbia and needed new ideas to govern the post-modern metropolis OC is today.
I remember reading the story in the Weekly world headquarters with my colleagues, Nick Schou and R. Scott Moxley, and howling in laughter. Agran, Pringle and Pulido–who called themselves the Tres Caballeros–were the most powerful mayors in Orange County history, bucking a politician's usual trajectory to Sacramento or Washington, D.C., to forge local machines that were reshaping their cities in their own image. The article dripped with their smugness and came with a photo of the three, all suited and proper and ready to conquer the county. Each mayor was a personal bugaboo of ours–Pringle for Nick, Agran for Scott, and Pulido for me–and now they were aligned together in OC's own Axis of Evil, ready for their comeuppance.
It would take a decade, but the Tres Pendejos are finally leaving, brought down by their own hubris.
On Nov. 4, voters in Anaheim, Irvine and Santa Ana rejected their respective city's longtime boss. Anaheimers overwhelmingly re-elected Mayor Tom Tait, a Pringle ally turned foe, as well as knocked out one of Pringle's favored council members. While Miguel Pulido won re-election for a 10th time, his council slate failed to win a single seat, leaving him more isolated than ever. And, in the most shocking development, Agran finished fourth, two years after he failed to win the mayoral seat; it's the first time he has been swept out of office since 1990.
Each left a legacy–Ozymandias comes to mind.
No one fell further from grace than Agran. Once the county's progressive lion, 2004 had Agran prepping to unveil his lasting legacy: the Great Park, a public-works project to be built on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station that OC business leaders and politicians had long slated to turn into an international airport. Agran created a grassroots coalition that not only beat back the airport, but also put forth his audacious plan as an alternative. Impressed by Agran's heroic efforts, county voters gave him carte blanche to create the Great Park, and Agran promised everything from man-made canyons and museums to a board of directors, on which Pulido earned a plum seat.
But Agran was also sowing the seeds for his own demise. Contracts for projects and consulting were being drafted for Agran confidantes, deals the old Agran would've lambasted as political cronyism at its worst. The onetime slow-growth advocate was already in bed with the Irvine Co., the very group that had helped push Agran out of office in 1990. Agran's goodwill in Irvine was such that he and his allies long tricked Irvine voters into dismissing the ever-louder dissenters as spouting partisan lies. But the truth won out through the years: As it stands, $200 million has been spent on a project the vast majority of Orange Countians still know only for a hot-air balloon in the shape of an orange.
By the end, many of Agran's former progressive allies had turned on him, disgusted by his increasing paranoia and pettiness. As a result, Agran was abandoned: His longtime 3-2 council majority became a minority in 2012; with Agran's loss last week, his sole acolyte on the council is the ever-screeching Beth Krom.
The same Macbeth turn happened to Pulido, Santa Ana's mayor since 1994 who has served on the City Council since 1986, when he ran as a radical reformer ready to take down City Hall. Instead, Pulido used his position to become part of the city's power structure, embarking on projects that glamorized the city–a gentrified downtown, an expanded Bowers Museum, a beautified Bristol Street that kept Mater Dei High School happy–while ignoring the town's increasingly restless community groups. Candidates who opposed Pulido's policies had a habit of getting either recalled from office or arrested by the feds–and Pulido's influence grew.
That banana republic way of rule has now come back to haunt him. Whereas Pulido was once a political kingmaker, only one of his chosen few–Vince Sarmiento–remains on the council. In 2012, Santa Ana passed a measure that imposed term limits on the mayor's seat, a direct hit designed by Pulido's opponents on the council and the activists he once ignored. And his love of serving as a go-between for people wanting to do business in Santa Ana–usually with Pulido getting a consultant's fee–led to a city investigation that says he should be charged with a felony for conflict of interest.
The most unlikely collapse, however, belongs to Pringle. He pulled off a masterful coup in 2002, when he successfully ran for Anaheim mayor by making peace with Latino leaders who hadn't forgiven the former Speaker of the Assembly for his role in an infamous 1989 poll-guard scandal. As late as 2006, those leaders still loved Pringle; no less a figurehead than longtime Los Amigos head Amin David told the Los Angeles Times he wanted Pringle to continue leading Anaheim because "he cares about doing something different and decent for the working class."
(Meanwhile, Pringle was creating a developer-friendly council–including a Democrat, Jordan Brandman–that was signing off on deals favoring the downtown and resort areas at the expense of the rest of the city and prepping Anaheim for a high-speed rail project that Pringle just happened to head for years.)
Pringle was termed out of office in 2010, but he never left Anaheim City Hall, as his firm's lobbying and his council members served as a shadow government. But Pringle's plans backfired dramatically. His handpicked successor, Tait, turned on him, arguing his predecessor's policies were terrible for the city's financial future. And 2012 brought forth the double blow of Pringle's former Latino allies suing the city to create district elections, as well as anti-police brutality riots; the two developments exposed for the world to see what Pringle's fruits had borne for Anaheim.
Yes, Pringle's favored candidates maintain a majority on the City Council. But the writing is already on the wall for his regime. Anaheim voters approved measures that, in 2016, will increase the size of the council to seven and force candidates to live in the districts they'll represent, severely diluting Pringle's power base. The rank crassness of Pringle's associates woke up a previously dormant Anaheim voter base that refuses to allow his tentacles to choke Anaheim much longer–just as with his amigos Agran and Pulido in their former fiefdoms.
It's not known if the three still talk as much as they did in 2004, when OC was theirs for the taking. But in that 2004 Register story, Agran told Rowe he felt the Tres Caballeros would inspire the county to follow their version of "innovative governance."
Agran called it a decade before it happened: The Tres Pendejos' governance inspired voters to finally sweep them out of office. See you at the Catch, pendejos!