The three young men were enthusiastic. Sitting across the table from Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, they were seeking his support for a syndicated television show that would focus on "good news." It would emphasize what's right about America and not be ashamed to be patriotic or promote family values.
You could almost hear the hair on the back of Agran's neck bristle. For a '60s civil rights and anti-war activist like Agran, certain words like "patriotism" and "family values" can have dual meanings.
"I'm real sensitive to the hypocrisy of some of these terms," Agran said quietly to the astonished men gathered in a conference room in Irvine's spanking new City Hall. It is easy, he said, to invoke the flag in order to question someone else's loyalty to their country, or use a term like "family values" to "bash gays and others."
The men left without the endorsement they had hoped for, having misjudged Agran. And one could hardly blame them. They had every reason to expect that the mayor of a city like Irvine--where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1--would be their kind of conservative.
In some ways, the 44-year-old Agran would seem better suited to be mayor of Berkeley, where his political philosophy was seasoned as a UC student. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley, the son of Roosevelt Democrats. After graduating with honors from Harvard Law School, Agran spurned a lucrative legal career to forge a career in public policy.
"How many dollars does one family need?" Agran says now of his decision. "If you've got a home you can afford and an automobile or two and you've saved some money and you've got your kid's education taken care of, what's the point of going out to earn another $100,000 a year?"
Agran was a staff lawyer for the state Senate Committee on Health and Welfare in Sacramento in the 1970s when he decided he wanted to run for office, "largely because you look around and see the bumbling representation that does exist and you know in your heart you could do a much much better job."
A few years later, Agran found himself living in Irvine while his wife, Phyllis, finished her medical training at UC Irvine and became a pediatrician. Agran did some legal work and took a page out of the book on feminist-era parenting by being primary caretaker for his young son, now a college student, while his wife attended school.
Opportunity Taken in '78
When an opportunity arose to run for Irvine City Council in 1978, Agran took it, running as a slow-growth candidate. Before Republicans figured out who he was, he was already elected.
From his sparsely decorated, third-floor office in the new, modern Irvine City Hall, Agran looks over a city that has grown from 46,000 when he was first elected to approximately 100,000 today.
Across from City Hall is a sea of salmon-colored tile roofs atop picture-perfect homes and townhouses in a 5,200-unit community known as Westpark, the latest of the city's major developments by the Irvine Co. Nearby is one of Agran's pet projects, the city's new, nonprofit, $1.3-million child-care center, started with a loan from the city.
Among the few things on Agran's desk is a greeting card, sent to him by friends on his last birthday. It portrays a funny-looking cowboy who, instead of slinging a gun, is armed with the type of stick used by crews to pick up papers as they clean park grounds. Two people are watching the cowboy go off in the distance.
"I never knew his name, but he sure cleaned up this town," one of them says to the other.
Agran's rise to power in Irvine, the 18-year-old model city at the center of the state's conservative bastion of Orange County, is something of a fluke, but it is not as mysterious as it might seem. Agran found his footing in the slow-growth movement, long before it became a political force. For years, he was on the short end of a 3-2 council split, trying to put the brakes on development.
In 1986, however, Agran helped elect a council majority more in line with his thinking on development. Last year, he not only led the effort to get a 4-1 majority of slow-growth advocates, but pushed for and got voter approval of a measure for a directly elected mayor. Not surprisingly, he also won that position for himself.
'City-Based Foreign Policy'
In an odd way, as a liberal Democrat heading a city dominated by Republicans, Agran has found a platform he otherwise might not have had for many of the issues he feels strongly about. In particular, Agran has moved vigorously on a national level into the area of "city-based foreign policy," trying to stir cities throughout the country to pressure the federal government to cut the defense budget in favor of giving more money to cities.
"We can't continue to spend $300 billion and more for military purposes and expect to improve air quality, build a transportation system that works, build a health-care system that works (and) educate our kids right," Agran said. "It's just not possible."