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Quixotic Presidential Bid by Former Irvine Mayor Spawns Suit

September 27, 1996|GEBE MARTINEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The political graveyard is filled with the skeletons of candidates who boldly dreamed they could run for president of the United States and win. And years from now, few may remember that, among those who tried and failed, was Larry Agran of Orange County.

But when the story of Agran's political life is written, it will not begin and end with his impractical attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992.

In fact, even though the election is long past, the story may not end in total failure, but in a moral and legal victory for Agran, who has sued the city of New York.

"Ah, yes. Larry Agran," says Judge Harold Adler, a seasoned New York jurist who normally would not remember one of the thousands of faces that pass through his criminal courtroom each year.

You see, Agran, a former mayor of Irvine, did not just run for president by getting his name on 35 state primary and caucus ballots. With understated passion, he fought for his right to have voters hear his views--to not be treated like "a nut."

So when he was blocked from participating in a nationally televised candidates debate in the Bronx a week before the 1992 New York primary, Agran rose from his seat in the balcony of a crowded auditorium and--in his words, "respectfully," but in a "loud voice" that would carry to the stage--asked to be included.

Instead, he and a backer, Arthur Goldstein, were arrested and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

Thus began Agran's long journey through the New York court system and--more important to him--his crusade for freedom of speech within the political process.

It took Agran, a 51-year-old Harvard Law School graduate, four years and about $30,000 to free himself from the criminal charges that Judge Adler eventually found baseless.

Now, he and Goldstein are pursuing a $5-million federal lawsuit against the city of New York and Lehman College, host of the debate, for allegedly violating their constitutional rights. The case is expected to go to trial next year.

"I would like to teach [the city of New York] a lesson," Agran said. "The lesson being that the Constitution of the United States of America should be alive and well in New York City; that the rights of duly qualified presidential candidates to participate in presidential candidates debates should be secured."

It is a lesson that Ross Perot and other qualified "minor" candidates, who have been excluded from the two upcoming nationally televised presidential debates, may want to observe, Agran adds.

The bravado by this meek-looking lawyer is based on years of taking it on the political chin.

During the second half of the 1980s, while serving as mayor in the richly Republican city of Irvine, Agran practiced his progressive Democratic philosophy--instigating environmental policies and securing funding for a monorail. Credited at first with thinking about his village in global terms, he was subsequently booted out of office by conservatives who no longer wanted the city used as his laboratory for social policy.

Agran also has championed campaign finance reforms and is a leading protester against the development of a commercial airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

To call him a skilled "political underdog" would add a sound of triteness to Agran's causes that are very credible, says Mark Denbeaux, a professor at Seton Hall Law School who represented Agran against the criminal charges.

"He's somebody who could take on [a national campaign that] would appear to be quixotic and do it in a manner that was . . . thoughtful and realistic and not lose sight of reality or become obsessive, as others might," Denbeaux said.

Agran knew that his bid for the presidency in 1992 was a longshot. But he wanted to debate his plan to shift the federal government's spending priorities from the defense budget to the nation's cities and states to cure urban ills.

By the time Agran and his campaign message reached the Bronx auditorium--which he had entered with an audience ticket--he had gathered more than 20,000 signatures in New York to qualify for the primary ballot. His presidential bid also had been featured on PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour," and he had debated Bill Clinton and other Democratic candidates at a forum in upstate New York.

(Agran eventually qualified for federal matching funds--a milestone not equaled by U.S. Rep Robert K. Dornan [R-Garden Grove], who ran for the GOP nomination this year).

On that night in the Bronx, Agran's request to join the Democratic debate was answered by a gaggle of security and police officers who pushed him to the ground, dragged him down two flights of stairs, handcuffed him and held him for four hours.

After several court delays, all charges against both men were dismissed. But the Bronx district attorney's office appealed the decision, and the disorderly conduct charge was sent back for a trial before Judge Adler.

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