A 'minor candidate' worth hearing

Sydney H. Schanberg

March 30, 1992|By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York WE IN THE PRESS don't like clutter or complexity. Make it simple, we say, we haven't got all day.

That's why presidential campaigns give us such a migraine. Too many candidates. But we have a simple solution, we get rid of the ones who don't count. To do this, we have to call the odds makers -- you know, the party professionals, the pollsters, the spin-meisters and, of course, the media consultants, the ones who are so good at manipulating us. Thus do the lists get narrowed. Our labels are in place. We have a front-runner and some guys trying to catch him. Oh yes, there are a few others in the competition, but our labels say they're "minor candidates" who don't have to be paid attention to. What a relief. The clutter is gone.

Larry Agran is one of those "minor candidates." He admits his chances of winning are remote, but no one who has taken an hour to listen to him and look over his record would call either his achievements or his ideas minor.

He earned national notice as the progressive mayor of Irvine, Calif., from 1984 to 1990. The surprise was that he got elected at all. The Orange County city of 110,000 is dominantly Republican and conservative. Agran, a Harvard Law honors graduate, is a liberal Democrat.

His programs, first as a leader on the Irvine city council and then as mayor, were egalitarian and environmental. Irvine became the first American city to ban ozone-depleting chemicals. Child care, anti-discrimination ordinances and a transportation system for the elderly and disabled were also credited to Agran's stewardship. Editorials in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times described his master planning approach with such phrases as "national model" and "a crucible of municipal innovation."

Agran, who is 47, wrote a book in 1977 called "The Cancer Connection," about the government's failure to protect citizens from cancers caused by the workplace and the environment. Though his public service was municipal, he made himself knowledgeable on national security and foreign affairs. Of all the candidates this year, his "peace dividend" proposal for cutting the military budget and channeling the money to domestic needs is the most comprehensive and specific. As a start, he would take the first $25 billion of a defense cut and pass it, as a kind of revenue sharing, to the nation's cities and towns to be used for "domestic reconstruction" -- for schools, child care, health programs, public safety and infrastructure.

My purpose in writing down some of Agran's history is not to please his relatives or nominate him for sainthood, but merely to note that he is someone of substance.

The point is that he has managed, on a shoestring, to qualify for the caucuses or primaries in more than 30 states -- and yet he can't seem to qualify for even modest recognition by either the press or the party professionals (who, like the press, abhor clutter).

Simply put, Agran has been excluded from most of the BTC candidate debates and, beyond the debates, has been afforded only marginal interview time on the networks. The explanations given are lame. One television producer said Agran wasn't "newsworthy" enough. The League of Women Voters, sponsor of an early and pivotal televised debate, decided he wasn't a "significant" candidate. The league has several criteria for deciding who is significant. One of them is: "Recognition by the national media as a candidate meriting national attention."

It's all very incestuous and self-fulfilling. If the press doesn't give him ink or air time, then he can't be significant, and if he's not significant then he doesn't qualify for the debates. In short, the way the process works is that all the institutions devoted to removing clutter from American life confer with each other and then decide who gets tossed into the garage sale.

In New York City, with the New York primary coming up in a week, we say this is the media capital of the country -- nay, of the whole world -- and then we say it will only confuse people if we allow Agran, who is very much on the ballot, to be included in the debates.

When Agran and the other candidates appeared before the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington two months ago, the story in the New York Times said: "After hearing pitches from the Democratic presidential contenders on how they would revive America's cities, dozens of mayors meeting here today seemed to agree on one thing: the single candidate who truly understands urban needs is Larry Agran."

But here in this city that is groaning and bleeding from its wounds, the press so far seems to be saying that we don't want to hear Agran's ideas. Might clutter our minds.

Sydney H. Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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