Tax Fighter Howard Jarvis Dies of Blood Disease at 83

Times Staff Writer

Howard Jarvis, whose Proposition 13 produced the most famous taxpayers’ revolt since the Boston Tea Party, died Tuesday night at Los Angeles’ Midway Hospital. He was 83.

Doctors attributed his death to a blood disease from which he had suffered since 1982. A spokesman said Jarvis was admitted to the hospital Tuesday.

A memorial service will be conducted at 10 a.m. Friday at the North Church at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills, said Joel Fox of Jarvis’ California Tax Reduction Movement.


Proposition 13, on the June, 1978, California ballot, was authored by Jarvis, a retired businessman, and Paul Gann, a retired Sacramento real estate salesman.

Jarvis and Gann were referred to as the odd couple because their personalities were so different: Jarvis was bombastic and intimidating; Gann was quiet-spoken, given to homilies and almost shy.

As the campaign developed, Jarvis’ aggressive personality took over and Proposition 13 became known as the Jarvis Initiative. The measure qualified for the ballot with 1.2 million voter signatures, almost three times the number required.

The political climate at the time was ripe for Jarvis’ tax-slashing campaign. Voters had become increasingly angry over inflation-prodded increases in real estate values. That, in turn, had produced rocketing property taxes. By election time it was no contest, and Proposition 13 passed by a landslide 65% margin.

Jarvis, who had been dismissed for two decades as a gadfly, suddenly became a national hero. Politicians, including then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., who had opposed Proposition 13, tried to climb aboard Jarvis’ tax revolt bandwagon. Journalists clamored for interviews. Jarvis made the cover of Time.

Meanwhile, the impact of the Proposition 13 victory was enormous and far-reaching.

The measure rolled back personal and corporate property taxes by about 57% to about 1% of appraised real estate values. As a result, state coffers were diminished by billions of dollars in property tax revenues and lawmakers were sent scrambling to come up with emergency programs to bail out schools and local governments.


Short, stocky and combative, Jarvis had taken on the California political and business establishments and won resoundingly. He had roared into a power vacuum at a time when neither the governor nor the Legislature could offer the voters a property tax reduction program in time to stave off the Proposition 13 bandwagon.

Public Was Angry

Jarvis, a self-made near-millionaire, a longtime political activist and former newspaper publisher, had rallied a public outcry over what was perceived as politicians’ insensitivity to the tax plight of the homeowner.

Opposed by much of California’s power Establishment, Jarvis almost single-handedly won the day.

Jarvis’ booming voice drew throngs from Eureka to San Diego; his orations were punctuated with earthy language sometimes more suitable to docks than to board rooms.

He was quick to pick up on the public fear and distrust of government. “The general public doesn’t believe a damn word of what any politician says,” he said while stumping for Proposition 13.

With more energy than many men half his age, Jarvis, then 75, carried that message of double-dealing government up and down the state during a campaign in which he hardly ever took a day off. He loved the rough-and-tumble of a bruising political fight.


Once during the campaign, while being driven across the hot Mojave Desert to a speaking engagement in Palm Springs, Jarvis talked to a reporter about how he worked a big crowd.

‘I Really Pour It On’

“When I have three, four, five thousand people, I really pour it on,” he said in his gravelly voice. “Like a goddamn Baptist preacher. I tell ‘em how government is clobbering them. I rev ‘em up. I talk about basic human rights.”

Jarvis was quick to admit that playing on the public’s fears was one of the trump cards that made Proposition 13 a big winner.

“But mine is a legitimate fear,” he said. “Fear of losing property.”

Howard Arnold Jarvis was born in the tiny Utah mining town of Mercur, in the hills about 50 miles west of Salt Lake City, on Sept. 22, 1902. About a week later, Jarvis once said, the town burned down and his family moved to another hamlet, Magna, about 10 miles west of Salt Lake City.

In his autobiographical account of Proposition 13, entitled, “I’m Mad As Hell,” Jarvis traced his American roots to North Carolina, where his father, James Ransom Jarvis, was born in 1879 and where, he said, Thomas J. Jarvis, “a relative,” was governor from 1879 to 1885. His mother, Margaret McKellar, was of Scottish descent and had migrated to Utah with her family from Illinois, he said, meeting his father there.

Jarvis told an interviewer in 1978, “My father and mother were Mormons but I never practiced Mormonism. I was the black sheep.”


Brothers Killed in War

Jarvis had three brothers and a sister. Two brothers, Hugh and Keith, died in military service in World War II. Robert, in the oil leasing business, lives in Reseda. His sister, Hazel Webb, still lives in Utah.

“I got my first job when I was 12 or 13, carrying buckets of water for the sidewalks that were being built in Magna,” Jarvis said in his book. “I worked a few hours a day, five days a week, and the contractor paid me 50 cents a day. I saved half of that and put it in the bank, a habit I learned from the Mormons and something I’ve tried to do all my life.”

Jarvis’ father eventually became a judge, and interest in the law carried over to young Howard, who studied the subject at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Jarvis worked in copper and silver mines to pay his way through college.

In 1926, Jarvis persuaded a local banker to make him a $15,000 loan to buy his first newspaper, the Magna Times. The banker, Jarvis said, was a direct descendant of Brigham Young and “knew Mormons always pay their bills, so I got the loan.” He and his first wife moved into an apartment behind the newspaper office.

Before long, Jarvis recalled later, he began making newspaper connections throughout Utah and soon had purchased 11 weeklies that were the bridge for his interest in Republican politics. “Newspapers gave me time to become involved in national politics,” he said.

Climbed in GOP Ranks

By 1932, Jarvis was president of the Young Men’s Republican Club of Salt Lake County and publicity director of the Utah Republican State Central Committee. From those positions, he obtained a series of political posts, ranging from press aide for the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Herbert Hoover to a campaign organizer for losing Republican presidential candidates Wendell Wilkie and Thomas E. Dewey.


During this time, Jarvis’ first marriage broke up. He also sold his newspaper chain for $105,500 and moved to Los Angeles with his 8-year-old daughter, Elaine, his only child. She now lives in Phoenix.

Shortly after his arrival in Los Angeles, Jarvis said in his book, he tried to buy the Pasadena Star-News, but at the last minute the owner sold it to the publisher’s son-in-law.

Jarvis then went into a series of businesses: manufacturing electric irons, gas heaters, garbage disposals and car heaters, and finally the aircraft parts business in which he eventually had five plants and about 13,000 employees.

Throughout his business career, Jarvis stayed active in politics. He was Midwest regional campaign manager for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s campaigns in 1952 and 1956 and was Western States manager for President Richard M. Nixon in 1960.

In 1962, Jarvis retired from business.

“I was well-to-do, with about $750,000 to my name, and almost 60,” he wrote. “I had a trimaran with a five-room house in the middle built in Taiwan. I was going to have it shipped to the Bahamas and go spend the rest of my life on it, enjoying myself. I had earned it.

“Then I got mixed up in taxes and never went. My boat is under charter in the Bahamas to this day. I’ve seen it, but I’ve never been on it.”


Sought the Spotlight

Instead of heading for the Bahamas, Jarvis sought the center of the political spotlight. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1962 against liberal Republican Thomas Kuchel and was badly beaten in the primary. But the lure of the campaign trail had left a lasting mark and Jarvis’ enthusiasm for a tough political fight was still evident years later in the battle over Proposition 13.

In fact, Jarvis said, “Running for the Senate was absolutely the most fascinating experience I had until Proposition 13 came along.”

In the campaign against Kuchel, Jarvis traveled and lived in a mobile home that had its own sound system in addition to a printing press inside so he could produce leaflets. The campaign cost $58,000, almost half of it his own money.

Jarvis later lost other political races--for the California Board of Equalization in 1970 and the primary for Los Angeles mayor in 1977. His basic theme in each race was to stop tax increases by an unsympathetic government.

Although he was not winning political races, Jarvis was building a political organization of dissident property-owner groups growing steadily apprehensive about rapidly rising property taxes. They were attracted to the feisty Jarvis, who hammered on the theme that few American rights are more sacred than owning one’s home and that nothing is more dastardly than losing one’s shelter to taxes.

For 15 years, Jarvis told The Times in 1978, he had been building a base for a Proposition 13-type initiative through his various political efforts.


“In the last 15 years,” he said, “I’ve done thousands of broadcasts in California on taxes, and I’ve had more television for nothing than all these candidates. I have (name) identification.”

He also had a political springboard.

Group of Apartment Owners

His political base in 1977 was the 8,000-member Los Angeles-based Assn. of Apartment Owners, which paid Jarvis $1,700 a month to run the group. Jarvis did not need the income, but the job gave him a platform for his anti-tax views and an opportunity to put together the machinery for his effective United Organization of Taxpayers, the vehicle for his tax-cutting crusade.

By the spring of 1978, Jarvis had hit his stride and was taking on everyone and anyone as a one-man champion for a property tax rollback.

In an interview after the Proposition 13 landslide, Jarvis talked of a national campaign to reduce federal spending. (A later effort to slice in half the California income tax went down to defeat.)

Speaking engagements came in from dozens of states and foreign countries. He hired a talent agent. He had become a folk hero.

“When I walk into a restaurant everyone gets up and cheers,” he recalled. “People on planes clap. People come up and say, ‘Gee, I sure am glad to say hello to you. When are you going to run for President?’ ”


That was the high point of Howard Jarvis’ career. Although he spawned tax-reduction movements in a few other states, including Massachusetts, and created interest at the federal level in tighter fiscal management, the national tax rebellion he wanted never materialized.

But Jarvis left his mark on government. Because he was--in his words on the victorious election evening--”a pain in the ass,” the people had finally listened to him. And disliked though he was by the Sacramento political Establishment, lawmakers were forced to deal with new fiscal rules that reshaped California.

Enjoyed the Popularity

Yet for all the criticism heaped on Jarvis (among other things, he was accused of wanting only to give a big tax break to his business and to cronies who owned apartment houses, something he vigorously denied), he still enjoyed wide public popularity to the end, maintaining a speaking pace that did not slow until his last few years.

Although subsequent Jarvis spending and tax-cutting initiatives did not have the success of Proposition 13, Jarvis nevertheless kept up his pace and this year had qualified another initiative for the fall ballot designed to protect Proposition 13 from encroachments by the courts.

Jarvis took great pleasure in recounting tales of the Proposition 13 campaign, addressing everyone from civic groups to college audiences. Once, when a high school student called him late at night to get information for a term paper, Jarvis regaled the boy for more than half an hour on how he beat the Establishment and won one for the homeowner.

As famous as he became after his landslide win, Jarvis claimed he never sought the national spotlight or “any honor or glory or a reward or a goddamn thing. My reward is going home at night,” he told a reporter, “and staying in the house and being able at this age to get up in the morning. That’s my reward. If you’re 75 years old and you can get up in the morning, you’ve got it made.”


Jarvis is survived by his wife, Estelle, as well as his daughter, brother and sister.