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Political Comeback King Agran Shares Laurels in Airport Battle

If ever someone had a right to gloat, it is Larry Agran. Once the designated whipping boy of the county’s conservative establishment and consigned to the political scrapheap, Agran has roared back.

Like a battle-scarred warrior summoned back to the front, Agran, 57, has delivered big-time. If, as expected on Tuesday, Orange County voters pass Measure W and drive a stake through the proposed El Toro airport, historians will be hard-pressed not to include Agran’s name among the most significant in modern county history.

Such trumpet-blowing normally would be music to the Irvine mayor’s ears. Agran, not burdened by a small ego or self-doubt, has a style that at times has antagonized not only opponents but potential allies.

And now, on the verge of a likely election victory he had a huge hand in forging, Agran has every reason to crow.

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But while chatting over lunch last week at an Italian restaurant in Irvine, he refuses. Moreover, he quickly shares the credit with the vast anti-airport coalition that appears set to replace the county’s plans for an international airport with those for a giant park and cultural amenities.

Confident about Tuesday’s outcome but not guaranteeing victory, Agran will at least concede that the airport’s demise unfolded just as he envisioned a few years ago and that the anti-airport movement has saved the county from a planning disaster.

Parceling out credit for killing El Toro is difficult, but Agran’s contribution is clear-cut. He was the key figure in realizing that, following two countywide pro-airport votes in the mid-1990s, voters wouldn’t veto an airport without something tangible in its place. And in the crucial follow-up phase, Agran is the person most closely linked to the “Great Park” plan that became that substitute. As Irvine’s mayor, he led the way in loosening that city’s purse strings (to the tune of $10 million) to help finance the anti-airport effort.

“We felt the final initiative would have to have what I called a true choice,” Agran says. “Not a false choice. It had to be not only popular enough to pass but something that was genuine, something that actually can and should be unifying [for the county]. This isn’t Irvine’s deal, and it isn’t South County’s deal.”

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By 1998, when Agran came out of political retirement to run for mayor with the express intent of killing El Toro, airport supporters had won two elections. As early as the first vote in 1994, however, Agran sensed the project wasn’t wildly popular but feared momentum might push it through.

After the second defeat in 1996, Agran was six years out of office and chafing. “Our allies thought we just have to turn out more South County voters [in future elections],” he says. “My response was, yes, but we need to make the case to people in North County.... What we learned in two elections is that you can’t beat something, even a bad idea, with no idea.”

In early 1998, another anti-airport group had come up with an alternative plan, but Agran wasn’t convinced it was enough. What came out of Project 99, the group Agran headed, came from surveying thousands of Orange County households and would prove to be the seedling for the current Great Park project.

The park’s critics say it’s a sham and never will be created. “Our opponents say it’s just a political ploy,” Agran says. “What they’re going to learn starting March 6 is that me and my colleagues on the council and the others who have waged this battle are just as determined to implement this vision as we were to defeat the airport. There won’t be any hiatus, any hesitation.... We want to accelerate this process because, frankly, we want the joy of being able to do this in our lifetime.”

I ask if defeating the airport would be a crown jewel in his career. “In a way, it is,” he says. He lumps it in with Irvine’s 1988 agreement with the Irvine Co.--during his first mayoral tenure--that secured thousands of acres of open space for the city.

“This stacks right up against that,” he says. “This is a threat that came out of the blue after I was out of office, and it allowed me to get back into public life, but in a way not only to defeat this threat to our community and our heritage of sound planning, but to allow for something positive to happen.”

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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