Larry Agran's Invisible Campaign for the Peace Dividend

Former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran announced his candidacy on August 22, 1991 before a crowd of about 350 people at UC Irvine.[1]  Agran called for a "New American Security" to be achieved by dramatically reordering priorities away from "military overkill abroad" to "human need at home."  He vowed "to be a voice for America's cities and towns and for the people who live there."

With the Democratic field at the time of his announcement consisting only of Paul Tsongas, Agran received respectable early coverage.  As a progressive mayor in conservative Orange County, he had passed environmental ordinances and championed a municipal foreign policy.  After the initial burst of attention, however, Agran was marginalized into the role of "minor candidate."[2]  He blamed Democratic Party chairman Ron Brown and other party officials for precipitating this unfair treatment.  For example, at the New Hampshire Democratic convention in November, state party chair Chris Spirou turned off Agran's microphone.  Thereafter he was forced into a constant struggle to get on the stage with the other candidates.  Agran was shut out of the vital nationally televised debates, beginning with the December 15 debate on NBC.

Agran managed to participate in a health care forum in Nashua on December 19 but only after a confrontation in which he rose and loudly demanded to be included.  When the forum moderators tried to have him removed, the audience balked.  Agran also spoke at a U.S. Conference of Mayors forum on January 22 and participated in the televised South Dakota debate on February 23; these appearances were favorably received and reported.[3] 

Most of Agran's efforts were directed at getting interviews from small radio stations and newspapers.  He produced a 30-second talking head TV spot on the peace dividend that was given a limited airing in New Hampshire.  Agran was ahead of the other Democrats in his use of on-line services to communicate with supporters.[4]  He raised funds through a professional direct mail effort that included at least three pieces sent out during the primary campaign.
The peace dividend was the cornerstone of Agran's effort.  He called for immediately reducing the defense budget by half -- a cut of $150 billion per year in military spending.  The cuts he proposed included removal of all permanent U.S. forces from Europe and Japan, cuts in foreign military aid, an end to nuclear weapons testing and cancellation of weapons systems such as the B-2 bomber.  The resources thus freed up would go to rebuilding American society and what Agran called the New American Security.

Despite disappointing vote totals in New Hampshire, where he obtained a scant 0.20-percent of  the vote, and elsewhere, where he generally came in at under one-percent, Agran did not quit.[5]  During the New York primary he was even arrested for protesting his exclusion from a debate on urban America at Lehman College.[6]  Agran was on the ballot in 35 states and qualified for about $270,000 in federal matching funds.  Overall the Agran for President campaign spent a total of $600,000.[7]

Agran carried right through to the convention and garnered three delegates.

Agran's candidacy raises the question of whether being mayor of a city of 110,000 for six years is sufficient qualification for the office of president of the United States.  New Hampshire state party chairman Spirou's position was that candidates had to "hold or have held statewide political office."  This line would have excluded Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, but with 36 candidates on the Democratic primary ballot in New Hampshire, lines had to be drawn somewhere.  The question is where and, more importantly, by whom?

1. At the end of 1990, with President Bush riding a wave of Gulf War popularity, 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern began to consider the possibility of mounting a progressive bid for the party's nomination.  McGovern selected Agran to head his exploratory effort.  In May 1991, however, McGovern decided not to run.

2. See Stephen C. Smith. "Anyone Can Grow Up to be President! (And Other Myths of the American Presidential Election Process). "  New Political Science, Winter-Spring 1994 issue (No. 28-29), pages 7-28.  Smith, the campaign's issues director, presents an exceptionally detailed account of the Agran candidacy, in which he documents "overt acts of exclusion" by the party and the media.  Agran and Smith argue that Ron Brown and others in the party wanted to settle on a nominee.  Smith believes that the media, motivated by budgetary concerns, went along and "proactively excluded" Agran.  If the networks had treated Agran as major candidate, they would have had to assign crews to cover him, thus incurring additional expenses.  Among other examples of exclusion carried out by the media, Smith cites coverage of the Iowa state party's September 7 Tri-State Democratic Unity Dinner.  The New York Times photo of the event showed Tsongas, Harkin and Clinton looking to one side; Agran, the other person on the stage, was not included in the image.  On the same theme, see also Joshua Meyrowitz.  1995.  "The Problem of Getting on the Media Agenda: A Case Study in Competing Logics of Campaign Coverage. "  In Political Campaign Discourse: Strategic Communication Problems, ed. Kathleen E. Kendall.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

3. Richard L. Berke.  "Mayors Appear Unmoved by the Major Candidates."  New York Times, January 24, 1992.

4. Steve Smith had been a sysop on GEnie's Science Fiction Roundtable for about four years.  Because the mainstream media were excluding Agran, the campaign was forced to look for alternative means to get out its message.  In addition to posting speeches and position information in the on-line libraries, Agran used the services in his struggle to be heard in the national media.  For example, when NBC excluded Agran from its televised debate in December, Smith posted NBC's phone and fax numbers and urged people to call or write the network.  This generated hundreds of calls; the same tactic in response to Agran's lock-out from the McNeil-Lehrer debate produced similar results.  Smith said that the outpouring "indicated we were having an impact," but he noted that it did not change the situation.  In January 1992 Agran participated in what is believed to have been the first on-line conference by a candidate on CompuServe's Journalism Forum.  He also took part in a GEnie forum later in the primaries.

5. Agran pointed out that he achieved noticeable results in a number of cities, including a 5 percent showing in Burlington, Vermont, 7 percent in New Haven, Connecticut and 10 percent in Moscow, Idaho.

6. A New York state judge later dismissed all five charges as groundless.

7. Agran's campaign had 8-10 paid staffers.  The core of the team were Carol Simon, who had a business background and had managed numerous local campaigns, Steve Smith, who handled policy research, and Michael Kaspar, who served as communications director.  Matt Kuzins of Sacramento did the campaign's direct mail.

See also:
Robert W. Stewart.  "Agran Wages Lonely Fight of the Unknown."  Los Angeles Times, December 23, 1991.

Larry Agran.  "And We Call Ourselves Democrats?"  New York Times, January 21, 1992.

More Resources:
C-SPAN: Larry Agran