Agran Wages Lonely Fight of the Unknown : Politics: The former Irvine mayor is frustrated by those who have dismissed his run for the presidency.
The day, so far, has not been kind to presidential hopeful Larry Agran.
A driving New Hampshire snow swirls over the narrow highway to Milford, a town of 12,000, delaying the former Irvine mayor’s arrival by half an hour.
When he finally steps into the local newspaper office, he finds that the weather has cut to seven the number of community leaders assembled to hear his radical pitch for making over the nation’s priorities. Then, an aide locks his keys inside the drafty convertible that is serving as Agran’s campaign car on this freezing, mid-December day.
If Agran is daunted, he doesn’t show it. These are among the least serious problems the unabashedly liberal Democrat faces just eight weeks before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
The 46-year-old candidate, whose academic look and soft-spoken, deferential manner suggest a bespectacled Mr. Rogers, is waging two tough campaigns in New Hampshire. One is against the six relative heavyweight Democrats who are fighting for the hearts and minds of the state’s recession-shocked voters in the Feb. 18 primary. The other is against the pundits, pollsters and media barons who, Agran says, have counted him out before the race has even begun.
Agran and his cadre of loyalists were particularly incensed that the former mayor was barred from the first nationally televised debate among Democratic presidential candidates that was broadcast Dec. 15 over the NBC network. To protest the decision, the campaign placed an ad the next morning in the western edition of the New York Times.
“What really angers me the most is that it really is an attempt on the part of NBC to substitute its own judgment on what is a credible candidacy for the judgment of the American people,” Agran grouses. “If I sound a little frustrated and upset, it’s because I am.”
It’s not that Agran’s message isn’t arresting. While other candidates are talking about tax cuts and health care, Agran is proposing a wholesale rewrite of the national agenda. He would chop defense spending in half, bring all American troops home from Japan and Europe, and use an estimated $150 billion a year in savings to finance a host of domestic initiatives, including national health insurance and direct grants to state and local governments.
If that weren’t radical enough, Agran thinks it’s time the federal government got serious about taxing the rich. He is proposing an annual 1% tax on the net worth of the wealthiest 1% of the nation’s citizens--say, for example, those whose assets total more than $5 million.
“Democrats used to be proud of saying we’re in favor of taxing the rich to help the middle class and the poor,” Agran says. “There’s nothing wrong with that as public policy.”
To combat the indifference of the networks, Agran has embarked on a guerrilla campaign that is being run on a micro budget. Since he announced his candidacy on Aug. 22, Agran says he has raised about $150,000, largely in contributions of $200 or less, a fraction of what other Democrats are pulling in. He has yet to qualify for federal matching funds by receiving $5,000 in small contributions in each of 20 states.
So instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on sophisticated television advertising, Agran stands in the cold outside the main Manchester post office, introducing himself and his program, the New American Security, to the busy people hurrying to their cars after mailing Christmas packages.
“Hi, I’m Larry Agran. I want to cut defense spending overseas and put those dollars to work right here at home.”
Many are encouraging. But others are skeptical of his plans for massive cuts in military spending.
“I’m a defense contractor,” says one man.
“My husband’s in the National Guard,” says a woman.
To counter those concerns, Agran plans to begin passing out to mayors and other city officials facsimile, blown-up checks detailing what his peace dividend proposal would mean to their communities: “United States Government President Larry Agran pays to the order of: Manchester, the sum of $15.5 million; Concord, the sum of $5.5 million,” and so on.
He’s banking on that kind of talk to have an impact in a state of 1.1 million, where the unemployment rate rose from 2.9% in 1988 to nearly 7% this year and where the number of families receiving food stamps increased by 50% between September, 1990, and September, 1991.
When he’s not visiting post offices or breezing into drugstores and insurance agencies, Agran is crisscrossing the state to visit tiny radio stations and small weekly newspapers, usually running late, sometimes getting lost, making the same pitch, answering the same questions. Why do you want to be president? What makes you think you’re qualified for the job? Why hasn’t anyone heard of you? The results have not been completely disappointing.
William B. Rotch, publisher of the tiny Milford Cabinet and the organizer of the Milford meeting, has written at least two pro-Agran editorials. One asked: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could nominate presidential candidates on the basis of their platforms rather than on ‘name recognition’?” A columnist for the Portsmouth Press, which serves the coastal city of 26,000, suggested in a prominently displayed article: “At least give Agran a chance to lose.”
Agran also has logged appearances on the “MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour,” the Larry King radio talk show, and the Michael Jackson radio program in Los Angeles.
Agran scored his biggest public relations coup Thursday night in Nashua, when he crashed a presidential candidates’ forum on health care from which he originally had been excluded by state party officials.
As West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the moderator of the event, began to introduce the six assembled Democratic candidates, Agran rose to his feet and in an uncharacteristically loud voice told the several hundred spectators: “I demand to be heard!”
Eventually, Agran was invited to share the stage with former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas and former Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy. Absent was Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the sixth perceived major contender (McCarthy usually is not included in the group). New York Gov. Mario Cuomo announced Friday that he will not seek the nomination.
“I think it is an opening,” said Roy Arsenault, 29, who is Agran’s chief political strategist in New Hampshire. “Larry was in this one, albeit he was treated poorly. By the time of the next one, we’re going to be up in the polls.”
Not everyone is so sure.
At the Wilder headquarters on North State Street in Concord, across the street from the granite, gold-domed state Capitol, New Hampshire campaign director Mame Reiley said Agran “doesn’t appear to be a factor in this campaign.”
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s a minor candidate,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Chris Spirou, a former state legislator and tough-talking developer who says he has lost virtually all of his real estate holdings in the “Reagan-Bush demolition derby.”
Spirou has declared that the only candidates who will be invited to participate in party-sanctioned events are those who hold or have held statewide political office. Two more debates are scheduled before the election.
Agran, Spirou said, “feels he is a major candidate, and therefore I should include former mayors of cities with a population of 100,000 or more into the equation. Tom Laughlin (candidate and star of the “Billy Jack” films) thinks that anybody who makes movies that have been seen by more than 2 million people should be included. So I have to make a decision as party chair.”
Mitchell Schwartz, who directs Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign from a spacious headquarters in downtown Manchester, the state’s largest city, said Agran will have “really no effect.”
“You have to run a campaign with offices, field plans, with direct mail, with television,” Schwartz said, “and these other candidates just haven’t done that. They haven’t passed the credibility test.”
Larry Agran sinks into the folds of an aging couch in the breezeway of the white Cape Cod home near Portsmouth that serves as his campaign headquarters. The back yard ends at the banks of the icy Piscatagua River. On the other side of the water sits the abandoned hulk of the Portsmouth Naval Prison. It is a long way from California.
Agran concedes that the chances that he will become the next President of the United States are remote. But he says he feels an obligation to raise the central issue that he believes is being overlooked by mainstream Democrats: the desperate need to turn the nation’s priorities around.
“Our country is in a state of absolute crisis at this point,” he says, his folded hands and quiet tone belying the message. “Our democracy is coming apart.”
Supporters say Agran’s understated fervor for liberal causes grew out of his days at UC Berkeley, from which he was graduated in 1966. Agran says he was an avid supporter of the Free Speech Movement that was born there in 1964. He served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1962 until 1970. He says he signed on in peacetime, before he had heard of a Southeast Asian country called Vietnam. If the reserves had been called up, Agran says, it would have been his duty to go, despite his opposition to the war.
After earning a law degree at Harvard in 1969, Agran returned to California to serve as legal counsel to the state Senate Committee on Health and Welfare. Agran was a member of the Irvine City Council from 1978 until 1990, and served as the city’s first mayor to be elected directly by the people for the last six of those years. He lost a reelection bid largely on the basis of his support for a gay rights ordinance that was under attack during the campaign.
He and his wife, Phyllis, a pediatrician, have a 21-year-old son, Ken, who is a senior at Dartmouth, in Hanover, N.H. Ken Agran is also working on the campaign.
During his controversial tenure as mayor of Irvine, Agran pushed through tough environmental ordinances, established a city office of international affairs, and championed a host of liberal causes. This experience has well equipped him to tackle the presidency, he argues.
But others suggest that the Agran presidential campaign really is an attempt to get the attention of the Democrat who ultimately will win the party’s nomination--and perhaps the White House--in the hope of landing a high-level job in the next Democratic Administration.
Agran suggests that he wouldn’t turn down such an appointment but insists that he is in New Hampshire only so that his message will be heard.
“I think I need to do one of two things,” he says, assessing strategy. “Either get something in the range of 3 to 5% of the vote, or finish ahead of one of those other six. Either one, I think, would be regarded as a significant achievement.”
That would give his fund raising a boost, and allow him to carry the campaign to Maine, South Dakota and Maryland, which have early caucuses and primaries.
Attaining even that modest goal is likely to be a struggle. While the other candidates are assembling well-oiled organizations and high-paid media consultants, Agran is relying on four paid staffers, plus volunteers from California, who work and live in the New Castle headquarters that the campaign rents for $1,500 a month. Their stipends are in the range of $75 a week.
Clinton, on the other hand, has 30 paid workers in New Hampshire, with at least one working in each county in the state. Tsongas already has begun airing television ads. And because the campaign began late, expensive television ads are likely to become the battleground for name recognition in the coming weeks, political analysts say.
Agran so far has produced a single 30-second spot, with Agran as talking head, that will air on local cable networks. It is all his campaign can afford, he explains.
It is 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon at WJJY-Joy FM 105.5 in Concord. The station is housed in an old mill building, sandwiched between Bouyea Fassetts Bakery Outlet and Edward Bourgeois, Tax Preparation. Arsenault, Agran’s strategist, is waiting for his candidate, who is running late. Agran calls to say his driver has taken him to the wrong radio station, and they’re now on their way.
As Arsenault waits, he runs into an old acquaintance, deejay Roger Parmelee.
“You doing any of the presidentials this year?” Parmelee asks.
“Yeah, I’m helping this guy out, Larry Agran,” Arsenault replies.
The inevitable question follows: “Who’s he?”
After Arsenault explains the New American Security, Parmelee grins and tells an onlooker: “Roy is the New Hampshire equivalent of Don Quixote.”
But there is at least anecdotal evidence that others are beginning to pay attention.
On Wednesday evening, WEVO, the National Public Radio station in New Hampshire, broadcasts its local feature, New Hampshire Daily. Host Martin Murray notes that two days before the deadline for filing candidacy papers for the primary, “there are a lot of big names we haven’t yet heard from. . . .” And in a coda that has to warm the hearts of Agran backers everywhere, Murray starts to tick off the list of “big names” who will wait until the final days to file. “Harkin,” he says, “Wilder, Clinton, Agran. . . .”