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Paul Gann Dies; Tax-Crusading Prop. 13 Author

Times Staff Writer

Paul Gann, the tax crusader who achieved nationwide attention as co-author of Proposition 13 in 1978 died Monday, almost two years after embarking on his final campaign.

That one was against the AIDS virus, to which he was exposed during a blood transfusion after open heart surgery in 1982. He died at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Sacramento, where he had been under treatment for a broken hip suffered in a Sept. 2 fall at his Carmichael home. He was 77.

A hospital spokesman said Gann died from pneumonia, complicated by his battle against the AIDS virus.

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Gov. George Deukmejian called his fellow Republican “a tireless crusader in behalf of lower taxes, fiscal responsibility and good government. . . . He was a champion of the hard-working taxpayer and an outstanding American.” And Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, whose powers Gann had once campaigned to curtail, credited the activist with playing “a major role in shaping California’s government financing system for a dozen years. His passing will be felt.”

A longtime friend, Assemblyman Ross Johnson (R-La Habra), described Gann as “small in physical stature but huge in his impact on California. . . . He was the will of the common man, ignored by politicians, that rose up to challenge and defeat the inaction of the Legislature.”

On June 9, 1987, in one of the most unusual press conferences in Sacramento history, Gann, normally a grandfatherly type who spoke softly in homilies, voiced his outrage over the tainted blood that had been given him.

He told publicly and graphically how the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome had crippled him physically, and called for widespread testing to detect the always-fatal, infectious malady that strikes primarily at male homosexuals and intravenous drug users.

“Instead of selfishly trying to protect ourselves by keeping secrets, we should be leading the fight to protect our friends and loved ones. . . ,” he told the media. “We have to face it. There’s no cure for AIDS. The only way to control it now is to find out who has it and let others know.”

Teamed With Howard Jarvis

Before launching his battle against AIDS, Gann had been known best for teaming with the blustery Howard Jarvis in 1977 to qualify the controversial initiative Proposition 13 for the ballot and for his individual efforts to keep the spirit of tax cutting alive.

The two became famous by promising homeowners relief from drastically increasing property taxes. Fearful that the rising taxes would result in the loss of their homes, voters went to the polls and approved Proposition 13 by a margin of 2 to 1.

Gann’s life had been something of a roller coaster ride before Proposition 13 catapulted him to fame. He came from a poor Arkansas family, suffered from a crippling disease for much of his early years and was a car and real estate salesman who twice went bankrupt.

But, riding the tide of fame and glory bestowed on him by thankful taxpayers, Gann late in his life became the 1980 Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. He also made a second career of using the initiative process to deal with what he said was a state government unresponsive to the voters interests.

Born in Clark County, Ark., on June 12, 1912, Gann was one of 11 children. The son of a Nazarene preacher who farmed to support the family, Gann early on learned the Bible passages he was to use often during his campaigns.

At age 5, after his leg was crushed in a fall from a horse, he contracted a disease he would suffer from for the next 25 years. Osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone marrow, settled in his left leg, at times causing his knee to swell to the size of a basketball.

“His brothers and sisters had to pull him to grammar school in a wagon,” Gann’s daughter Linda Stone said. “He was a cripple.”

Gann’s illness ultimately prevented him from attending public schools, and he was tutored at home by his mother. He completed high school through a correspondence course and later took law courses the same way.

Sold Autos, Real Estate

In 1931 Gann married Nell Holloway and made a living picking peaches and doing construction work. During the Depression, Gann and his wife left Arkansas and moved to California, where he supported them by selling autos and real estate.

In the early 1940s, still suffering from the osteomyelitis, Gann went to a San Francisco hospital where he had 13 operations. Nell Gann said doctors resorted to putting maggots on the infected leg hoping they would eat away the osteomyelitis. When this failed, Gann’s doctor gained permission to try a new drug, penicillin.

Within months, he was cured.

“He (Gann) said his recovery from osteomyelitis was a miracle, and we gave God credit for his recovery,” Nell Gann said.

Registered as a Democrat, Gann started his political career in the 1950s. By then he had four children and was earning a living selling cars and real estate while doing volunteer work in Democratic presidential primaries. He also mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the City Council in Modesto, where he lived for 13 years before moving to Sacramento.

His first bankruptcy was the result of investing virtually all his money in military surplus items for resale after World War II. But, his wife said, the items did not reach him until after consumer demand was gone.

Gann again filed bankruptcy in 1964 as a result of a long court case in which Volvo of America Corp. challenged the ownership of a dealership Gann had purchased.

“I regret those things happened,” Nell Gann said, “but I will never hold my head down because of it.” Interviewed before her husband’s death, she said he would often say, “You are never defeated if you get knocked down, it’s if you don’t get up.”

Switched to Republicans

In the early 1970s Gann changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican to, in his words, “better help the people of California.” He took up those issues he felt affected taxpayers statewide. By now retired, Gann’s first signature drive was in 1974 to demonstrate public opposition to what his supporters said was a generous pension plan for legislators.

To supply a vehicle for political involvement at the local level, Gann founded the People’s Advocate in 1974. Gann was its president when he teamed up with Jarvis in 1977.

Jarvis, as president of the United Organization of Taxpayers, and Gann had tried individually to place property tax-cutting initiatives on the ballot before 1977. After each had failed, they decided to work together.

Their drastic personality differences made it more productive for them to handle separate aspects of the Proposition 13 campaign.

Gann and his organization established local committees that rang doorbells and used telephones to get out the vote. Jarvis handled publicity and coordinated radio and television coverage.

After their overwhelming ballot victory, Gann, a benign man with a down-home way of approaching people, noted that he had been overshadowed by the fast-talking, loud-mouthed Jarvis.

Jarvis, who died in 1986, admitted he was the one most often in the limelight, adding, “Paul had a right to feel slighted somewhat,” but “it didn’t cause any bitterness between us.”

Yet, after the success of the initiative, the two had a bitter falling out, Gann charging that Jarvis was trying to claim all the credit for the success of Proposition 13. Gann and Jarvis later mended their disagreements and went on to endorse each other’s endeavors.

After Proposition 13, Gann struck out alone on the initiative path. Already in his late 60s, Gann took a story of over-taxation and legislative overspending to the people and attracted many to his cause.

Doing What Had to Be Done

In 1979 Gann told The Times he was only doing what had to be done.

“The people shouldn’t have to go around with petitions creating laws, but if the Legislature won’t, we will,” Gann said.

“I’m a patriot. I care about the people and about my country. I’d fight like a dog for our rights.”

That same year, Gann campaigned for the “Spirit of 13" initiative that placed constitutional limits on government spending in the state. The initiative, Proposition 4 on the ballot, was passed by 3-1 majority in the November, 1979, state election.

Then in 1980, proclaiming the need to balance the federal budget and limit the power of government, the grass-roots activist defeated six other Republican challengers to become the party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Running against then two-term incumbent Alan Cranston, Gann was pegged as a one-issue candidate with little knowledge of anything but tax-cutting initiatives.

Gann spent just over $1 million during the campaign, compared to the nearly $3 million Cranston spent, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission said. But, more important, in the crucial days before the election Gann ran completely out of funds and had to depend on radio and television talk shows for publicity.

Cranston easily won the race with 56.5% of the votes compared to Gann’s 37%.

After the election Gann immediately went back to tackling what he viewed as government inadequacies with his Victims Bill of Rights initiative, Proposition 8 on the June, 1982, ballot.

Tide of Public Sentiment

Riding a tide of public sentiment that held that lawmakers were soft on crime and that the courts coddled criminals, Proposition 8 amended the state Constitution to make criminal convictions easier, adding five sections to the Penal Code and three sections to the Health and Institution Code. The initiative was approved by 56% of the voters.

Then again using the power of direct democracy, Gann challenged lawmakers with his Legislative Reform Act in 1983.

This initiative, which qualified for the June, 1984, ballot, called for a drastic 30% cut in the Legislature’s budget and reduction of the power held by the Assembly Speaker. It was approved by the voters but thrown out by the courts.

Gann campaigned for all his propositions with the vigor of men half his age. Even the five-bypass open heart operation in 1982 that was to result in his exposure to the AIDS virus, and intestinal surgery for blocked arteries in November, 1983, failed to slow him appreciably.

In June, 1987, he proposed legislation that would eliminate some of the property tax inequities created by his own Proposition 13. But thereafter he lost those scrapping abilities as AIDS weakened him. When he first disclosed that he was infected by the virus, he said he at first lost 10 pounds in as many days and could not eat or stand properly.

But, for a time, he improved, attributing what proved only to be a brief recovery to his getting over “the anger and frustration.”

“Hey, I was born to die. I’m going to die someday,” he said at that fateful press conference.

“But I’m going to tell you one thing. (I’m) going to put up an awful fight because I’m going to hang on and fight back, and I will be doing what I’ve been doing for years until the day I can no longer get out of bed and move around and call people.”


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