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Old Foes Agran, Sheridan Gird for Irvine Showdown


IRVINE — They are two sides of Irvine's political coin, one a conservative Republican whose public ambition extends no further than the city borders, the other a maverick Democrat touted by some slow-growth advocates as a potential statewide leader.

Both of them, Republican City Councilwoman Sally Anne Sheridan and Democratic Mayor Larry Agran, are articulate and intelligent. And each knows the other like a book.

"Maybe I have a Ph.D. in Larry Agran because when you're around a person long enough you begin to think like they do," Sheridan said of her longtime rival. "Each of us understands that when the other is gearing up for a fight, we are formidable foes."

Agran, a lawyer who was elected mayor in 1988 but served as the appointed mayor for two terms before that, also has seen his share of Sheridan. "We know each other very well," he said. "We've spent a long time on this council together."

After almost a decade of honing their political skills against one another, Sheridan and Agran now get a chance to use what they've learned. They are squaring off in Irvine's mayoral race, a contest that could come down to the wire on June 5, when voters go to the polls, observers say.

In the meantime, the candidates will spend a great deal of money to advance their programs. With four months to go, Agran has already amassed about $40,000 and Sheridan about $16,000--and the race is sure to create a stir in the well-heeled community.

"A lot of very active Republicans in Orange County are very interested in this race because Larry Agran has appointed himself to so many roles beyond just being mayor," said Greg Haskin, executive director of the Republican Party of Orange County. "He's a real cornerstone of the state's Democrat Party."

As anxious as Republicans are to dislodge Agran, Democrats are just as committed to keeping him right where he is.

"Larry is one of the stars of the Democratic Party in Orange County," said Mike Balmages, the county party chairman. "It's important to keep him in that position."

In a city where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 2 to 1, and where voters backed George Bush over Michael S. Dukakis and where they overwhelmingly went with Ronald Reagan time and again, the partisan interest is not exactly to Agran's liking. Despite the partisan interest, the mayor's office is a nonpartisan post, a fact Agran often points out.

'I think people in Irvine are much more progressive than they typically get credit for," he said. "The issue in this campaign ought not be party affiliation; the issue ought to be issues."

To which Sheridan is typically blunt: "To say that this is a nonpartisan office is the biggest bunch of crap I've ever heard. . . . Larry's a Democrat. I'm a Republican."

The political lines are blurry in Irvine, though, as Agran counts some Republicans in his camp. City Councilman Cameron L. Cosgrove, for instance, is a Republican and yet one of the mayor's strongest backers.

"My philosophy is that these are nonpartisan offices, and they ought to stay that way," Cosgrove said. "Partisan politics really gums up the works at the local level."

Sheridan, a realtor first elected to the council in 1984, has already made turning out Republican voters her top campaign priority. Getting them to the polls will make the difference, she says, citing campaign research that illustrates her point.

Sheridan is often a lone voice on the council, and she has urged the city government to focus on more local issues. Her campaign includes a pledge to take the mayor's post from an elected post back to a position that rotates among council members, but she says her main focus is to tell voters that the city has had enough of Agran.

"It's just time for a change," she said. Sheridan is considered a long shot, even by herself, but she enjoys strong support from conservatives and some members of the business community.

Partisan participation may well affect the outcome of the race, observers say, but most agree that the central issue will be Agran himself. Feelings run deep about the mayor in Irvine, with Agran's backers and opponents disagreeing passionately about his tenure.

With more than a decade of City Council experience behind him, Agran is the city's best-known political figure. He easily won the 1988 mayor's race, and even his detractors acknowledge that he is a daunting opponent.

His support for environmental policies such as the city's ban on chlorofluorocarbons have brought him and Irvine national attention and acclaim. He has also gained attention in his fight to preserve open space in the city.

Nevertheless, Agran's mayoral record during the past 18 months has also provided grist for his adversaries. He opposes construction of a pair of vehicle overpasses on Yale Avenue, and supporters of those overpasses have appeared in force at council meetings.

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