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Medfly War: All Quiet on Protest Front

A surprising and unnatural silence has overtaken the Medfly front since a flurry of demonstrations ended earlier in the year.

Wednesday night was an example. Superior Court Judge Greg O’Brien, a candidate for Los Angeles County supervisor, had gone to the El Monte Airport, where nearly every night helicopters take off to do battle with the pest. O’Brien’s purpose was to publicize his campaign for the seat held by retiring Supervisor Pete Schabarum. He planned to hold a press conference with some residents who were angry over the all-night helicopter activity.

Such an anti-spraying stance seemed to make good political sense. A Times Poll taken in February showed people favored an end to the spraying by almost a 2-1 margin. Schabarum’s office had received many calls from residents near the airport objecting to the noisy flights. And Republican politicians and political consultants were advising San Gabriel Valley candidates to oppose spraying, even though Republican Gov. George Deukmejian’s Administration backed it.

To O’Brien’s disappointment, however, only two neighbors and two reporters showed up at his press conference. To make things worse, when the candidate led his tiny assemblage toward the helicopters--an obvious and attractive backdrop for political hay making--Jim Rudig of the state’s Cooperative Medfly Project ordered him to leave.

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It was a fiasco, and it can be blamed partly on O’Brien’s inexperience as a first-time political candidate. Marginal news conferences should be held at midday, before newspaper and television deadlines, not at night. And such campaign advance work as securing permission to visit an airstrip should not be attempted on the fly, with reporters watching.

Still, I remember a time when even an event like O’Brien’s might have drawn a real crowd. That was in the late 1970s, during one of the most powerful protest movements in state history, Proposition 13.

There are similarities and differences in the Medfly protests and Proposition 13. The Medfly and the Proposition 13 protests began in the same way--middle-class homeowners sensing they were being poisoned by big government. In the Medfly case, it’s real poison. With Proposition 13, the poison was out-of-control property tax increases. In each instance, elected representatives were incapable of damage control.

But the Proposition 13 movement had a vitality that the Medfly protests lack. I remember an anti-tax movement headquarters in a San Fernando Valley storefront run by a woman named Jane Nerpel. Most of the people there were angry seniors, and they were ready for a long campaign.

At first the press ignored them. But the protesters didn’t need the press. They spread the word on radio talk shows, first here and then in the San Francisco Bay Area. The talk show hosts got caught up in the issue, and the dialogue grew.

The movement picked up a leader, Howard Jarvis, a longtime Los Angeles County Hall of Administration gadfly, who had been viewed as an anti-tax crank by the press and politicians. A crank maybe, but also a man made for talk shows and television.

No need telling the rest of the story. Howard Jarvis changed history.

Leaders help make issues. They personify the issues and articulate them, as Jarvis did. Opposition to malathion spraying is a cause without a leader. There’s no anti-malathion Howard Jarvis.

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Another difference between the protest movements: The degree of pain felt by the people. With Proposition 13, huge numbers of homeowners were really hurting. Retirees on limited incomes feared losing their homes. Anger and panic swept through neighborhoods.

The Times Poll showed, on the other hand, a considerably lower pain factor with the malathion spraying. Our pollsters asked residents living within spray zones if they or family members had suffered health problems as a result of spraying. A total of 72% said no. Only 31% had thought pets or wildlife in their neighborhoods had been injured or killed by the malathion. Just 30% believed property had been damaged.

That’s a noticeable number. But it’s not like Proposition 13. Not enough people feel they’ve been hurt.

As a result, the political impact has been minimal, and with the election slightly more than a month a way, it’s likely to remain that way. Proposition 13 carried a bunch of unknowns into the state Assembly--the Proposition 13 Babies. Out in the San Gabriel Valley, where Greg O’Brien and a multitude of candidates are contesting for Pete Schabarum’s place on the Board of Supervisors, the time has not come for a generation of “Medfly Babies.”

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