IRVINE — It was one of the longest election nights in this city's history, a white-knuckle, emotional roller coaster ride for mayoral candidates and longtime political rivals Sally Anne Sheridan and Larry Agran.
At Agran's University Park home, once-jubilant supporters at his post-election party grew despondent as his early--but narrow--lead unexpectedly began slipping away. Conversely, the subdued mood waxed ecstatic at Sheridan's campaign headquarters, as supporters who had gone home to bed, expecting a loss, returned to cheer her on to victory.
Tensions markedly increased around midnight, when Agran's 4% lead over Sheridan narrowed to less than 2%. Until final vote tallies came in at 3:22 a.m. Wednesday, both camps riveted their attention on the ballot counting, as precinct by precinct, the returns determined the candidates' fates.
Barefoot and smiling, Sally Anne Sheridan sat on the floor of her campaign headquarters. It was shortly past midnight, and the latest count revealed that she was behind by 120 votes.
"I don't care about being mayor. What do I need to be mayor for? I'm 55," Sheridan declared. "I want to do this because I don't want anyone who is elected mayor thinking he is so great," she said, referring to her opinion of Agran.
About 20 minutes later, she took the lead.
A group of onlookers, which by then had dwindled to only die-hard supporters, erupted into cheers.
But the celebration was brief. By the next round of tallies, Sheridan was trailing by more than 300 votes. The crowd grew quiet again.
"Well, the Republicans didn't get out to vote," Sheridan said dejectedly, as if she was ready to concede the race.
A few miles away, in a downstairs den at Agran's house, campaign volunteer Jim Jenal sat huddled over a personal computer terminal, poring over precinct-by-precinct results and wondering if a comeback was in store.
About 20 people crowded into the small room to watch his every move; others stood outside and peered through a window. Agran's parents, Selma and Reuben Agran of Studio City, sat motionless on a couch in the room, holding hands, their faces strained with worry.
Agran, visibly tired from a day he began at 5 a.m. by passing out voter information, mingled among the guests, who numbered 100 at one point. He checked on Jenal's calculations as the numbers rolled in.
"It's a close one," Jenal said sometime after 1 a.m. "But 18 of the 40 precincts remaining are those where we worked hard campaigning. It's still do-able."
The phone rang and a hushed silence filled the den, which grew stuffier and warmer as the race grew tighter.
"I don't like the sound of this at all," Jenal said quietly into the receiver as supporters exchanged looks of despair. Agran was trailing Sheridan by several hundred votes.
At 2 a.m. Sheridan's party was suddenly packed with returning well-wishers who discovered that she had taken the lead.
Half an hour later the growing crowd celebrated the victory of Sheridan-supported Measure B--a plan to widen a pair of Yale Avenue pedestrian overpasses.
"Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!" they chanted, and followed with chants of "Sam! Sam! Sam!"--a pet name derived from the initials of Sally Anne Miller, Miller being Sheridan's previous surname.
Sheridan's husband, Don, walked into the room dressed in an Uncle Sam suit, which he had worn while campaigning earlier that day.
"Do we have democracy again in Irvine?" he asked.
"Yes!" the group responded enthusiastically.
"Don't get your hopes up," warned Sally Anne Sheridan. "We've been up and down all night and we've got five precincts to go."
By 3 a.m., Agran had privately conceded the election.
"I think we can pull the plug," he said.
His supporters, many crying and in shock from the unexpected defeat, filed out one by one. Agran, keeping a cheerful demeanor, stood on the front walk and hugged each one of them, thanking them for their help.
"Now go out and do some good things," he said brightly.
"What happened? What happened?" one elderly woman sobbed, burying her head in Agran's shoulder as he consoled her. Others threatened to sell their homes and leave Irvine.
"It's a shock," said Selma Agran, dabbing at her own tears. "Unbelievable."
Agran went into the house and picked up the telephone.
The jangle of telephone cut through the din at Sheridan's campaign headquarters, just two minutes after she received the final returns and was beginning to relax.
Sheridan answered the phone and then suddenly sat upright.
"Yes," she said into the receiver, her voice tense. "Thank you. . . . Your call means a lot to me," she said before putting the phone down.
"That was Agran," Sheridan told the curious group. "He just conceded."
Over the joyful shouts, Sheridan relayed Agran's statement: "He wants to be of help to me and, in spite of the bitterness of the campaign, he wanted to wish me well."