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Revenge and the Downfall of Mike Gage

Revenge is a powerful political force, as Mike Gage learned recently.

Gage, former deputy mayor to Tom Bradley, resigned this month from the governing board of the Metropolitan Water District, the huge agency that brings water from the far reaches of Northern California and Arizona to cities, suburbs and farms from Ventura County to the Mexican border and from the Pacific to the Inland Empire.

He’d been advised that the new mayor, Richard Riordan, wasn’t going to reappoint him. “I serve at the pleasure of the mayor,” Gage told me. “I had heard that, for a while, there was a tussle about whether I would be or wouldn’t be reappointed. Then I heard from some Met directors that I wouldn’t be reappointed. It was undermining my ability to do my work for L.A. so I said, ‘Let’s bring it to a head.’ ”

But there’s more to the story. It reaches from Los Angeles to Sacramento and involves the most powerful business and political interests in the state, as well as the future of Gov. Pete Wilson.

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The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has shaped the Southland. Without water brought in by the MWD--known as the Met--most of semiarid Southern California would have remained more suited to grazing than industry. When the recession ends and building resumes, the Met and its practically anonymous directors and staff will help shape growth through allocation and distribution of water.

From the beginning, Gage was determined to be a powerful force in the process.

But his personality got in the way. He is a blunt, tactless man with a temper--traits that conflict with the MWD’s clubby way of doing things.

Shortly after Gage was appointed to the board, he ran for chairman. He muscled his way to the top in a nuclear attack manner, leaving a trail of dazed, wounded and embittered opponents. One of them was a Latina attorney, Marilyn Garcia, who had also sought the chair. Her defeat angered Latino leaders.

As chairman, Gage moved to exert authority over the staff and the general manager, Carl Baronkay. “We changed a lot of things,” Gage said. Inevitably, Gage’s moves created conflict with the staff and other MWD board members.

There was more involved than the Metropolitan Water District’s internal operation.

Gage had arrived on the water scene at a crucial moment in Southland history.

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In Northern California, water exports to Southern California and the Central Valley had all but wrecked fishing in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and threatened to destroy the environmental quality of San Francisco Bay. Northern politicians and voters opposed expansion of export facilities.

The Metropolitan Water District had long pursued a goal of draining Northern California streams to bring more water to Southern California. The Met’s ally in this endeavor was Central Valley agriculture.

By the mid-1980s, the Met, under general manager Baronkay’s leadership, had awakened to the new political reality and had backed off on its fight for more water imports. But Central Valley agriculture remained firm in its determination to capture Northern California water.

These powerful agriculture business interests were among Gov. Wilson’s strongest supporters. But he couldn’t offend the north. There are a lot of voters there, especially around San Francisco Bay and the delta.

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So he appointed a commission to work on a compromise. Gage, as MWD chairman, was a member. Environmentalist members walked out after a fight with Wilson. Gage joined the walkout. His refusal to participate upset Wilson.

Wilson’s communications director, Dan Schnur, assured me that the MWD did not come up when Wilson and his wife, Gail, had dinner with Mayor Riordan and his companion, Nancy Daly, at the governor’s Century City apartment Sept. 16.

I believe him. Mentioning water politics is the quickest way to ruin a dinner party. But I bet Wilson’s aides made a few phone calls to L.A. urging the Riordan people to dump Gage. It probably was easy for them to get through. Gage had no friends in the mayor’s office. He hadn’t supported Riordan in the last election.

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In the end, it wasn’t philosophy that cost Gage his job. He and most of the MWD powers agreed that the old days of raiding Northern California water were over. This policy will continue unless Riordan’s appointees try to revive the war with the north.

Rather, he was a victim of too many enemies. Smart politicians avoid such pitfalls. They would rather follow the example of a much-beloved pol, the late Hubert Humphrey. If Humphrey had fallen, they said, there would have been a hundred hands to pick him up.

Nobody raised a hand for Mike Gage.


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