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Agran Wants Urban-Area Primaries : Politics: Ex-Irvine mayor says cities could showcase their needs in non-binding presidential elections. Experts give his idea mixed review.

August 24, 1994|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Larry Agran has a political innovation he hopes will force the nation to face the dire problems of cities.

Having learned his lessons firsthand as mayor of Irvine from 1982-84 and again from 1986-90, Agran pushed to get urban issues higher on the national agenda when he ran as a dark horse Democratic presidential candidate in 1992.

While campaigning for months in New Hampshire for the state's presidential primary, he noticed something that fundamentally changed his thinking.

While New Hampshire is rural, Agran said, the majority of Americans are urban. And while New Hampshire residents are mostly white, he said, the rest of the United States is ethnically diverse.

"The real voters and the people confronting these problems every day live in America's cities," the former mayor said.

Thus, an idea was born, something he calls a "national urban primary," to lift the level of federal interest in local urban issues.

Agran's plan: Give people--all people--a voice by organizing non-binding presidential primaries in 15 to 20 cities across the country to be held in November, 1995, in conjunction with the cities' local elections.

The primaries would be early enough in the 1996 campaigns to have a major impact, he believes. And they would raise city issues to a new national stature by forcing candidates to visit a representative cross-section of American cities to discuss such urban concerns as housing, economic development and crime prevention.

"It won't replace the Hew Hampshire primary," he said of the proposed national urban primary, "but I do think it will redress an inexcusable imbalance. New Hampshire is a beautiful state but completely unrepresentative of the country. This will change the national political landscape."

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After completing his unsuccessful presidential campaign, Agran said, he persuaded the U.S. Conference of Mayors to adopt a resolution favoring his idea.

Later he conducted a study pointing to its need, and for the past two years, he's been directing the effort from the Irvine offices of an independent nonprofit organization called CityVote.

Since 1992, according to Agran, the group has spent about $150,000, mostly donated by individuals and private foundations. By 1995, he said, he expects it to spend another $200,000 to $450,000 to provide information, brochures and technical assistance to cities considering or planning participation in the project.

One advantage of scheduling the primary to coincide with local elections, he said, is that cities will be able to participate without underwriting the cost of a special election.

"All they have to do," he said, "is add the names of the candidates to the ballot."

To date, according to Agran, six cities have agreed to do so: Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; Baltimore; Spokane and Olympia, Wash.; and Pasadena. Other cities considering participation, he said, include Boston; Durham, N.C.; New Haven, Conn.; San Francisco; Houston; Cincinnati; and Dayton, Ohio.

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In Orange County, Agran said, he is targeting Santa Ana, which he called "one of the country's biggest cities, which . . . happens to have a Hispanic majority that makes it . . . very reflective of the changing demographics of Southern California and the entire region."

Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young said Tuesday that he was only vaguely aware of the project and had no plans to pursue it. "We have not discussed it, don't have a position on it and it's not on our agenda," he said.

But Sal Mendoza, president of the Santa Unified School District--the only entity holding an election in November, 1995--said that he liked the idea and had already instructed the district's superintendent to look into its legal implications.

"I'd love to see it happen," Mendoza said of the proposed national urban primary. "We need to follow up on it."

Reactions elsewhere in the country have been mixed.

A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee told The Christian Science Monitor that the project is a bit irrelevant because President Clinton already has urban issues clearly on his agenda.

A representative of the Republican National Committee said she saw no harm in it, but that the party would not tell its candidates whether or not to participate.

Stephen Hess, a political scientist with the Brookings Institution in Washington, described the idea as a bit absurd. "Delegates are elected by states, not by cities," he told the Monitor. "If you're going to have 'primaries' for a set of special pleaders, why not have straw votes for farmers or miners?"

None of the criticism, however, has shaken Agran's belief that this is an idea whose time has come. "It's no longer just an innovative idea," he said. "CityVote is now a growing reality on the political landscape."

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