I met Howard Jarvis for the first time in 1976. He had tried to qualify a real estate tax limitation initiative constitutional amendment to the California ballot. He had failed to gain enough signatures to qualify.
Jarvis was generally perceived as a political gadfly. He was a frequent attendee of Los Angeles City Council meetings and testified frequently on tax matters and ordinances under consideration. At the time, I was a Los Angeles City Commissioner in Mayor Tom Bradley’s administration. On the occasion Howard and I met I was running George Wallace’s presidential campaigns in states west of the Mississippi. We commiserated on the rather steep climbs we each faced and shared political war stories of past efforts and involvements.
Howard described being an Eisenhower delegate to the 1952 Republican convention, how he was a “jack” Mormon (one who is considered to be “backslidden” by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints) and was at odds with the then current Republican leadership in California. I offered that I was a floor manager for Wallace at the 1972 Democratic convention, was an atheist, which is about as “backslidden” as a Baptist can become, and I was a bit of a political pariah with the California Democratic leadership.
In 1978, Howard called me. He had just received word that the initiative that had failed in ’76 had just qualified for the California ballot, and would I run the campaign to get it passed?
I accepted. And the rest is history. Proposition 13 was a political earthquake in California. It passed comfortably, stunning the political status quo. It was the political equivalent of the shot heard ’round the would, as it set the political stage for tax revolts across the country and ushered in the Reagan revolution in 1980.
While I had framed much of the campaign as a progressive answer to the inequalities of real estate tax revenues funding local school districts, the anti-tax fervor of a generally outraged and populist majority of California voters drowned out the progressive message I thought important. Until Prop 13, local schools were financed by local property taxes. As you may imagine, poor communities had horribly inadequate schools and wealthy communities had luxurious ones. The differences between schools in South Central LA and those in Beverly Hills and Brentwood were similar to the differences between the communities themselves. Poverty and riches separated by a few miles and an unfair tax system.
Howard lived in a modest bungalow on Crescent Heights in the Wilshire District. He and I, and his wife, Estelle, would spend hours in his living room, during and after the campaign, discussing politics, philosophy and strategy.
During one of our sessions, Howard decided I should run for Los Angeles City Council the following year. I lived in Northridge, in the 12 Councilmanic District, in the San Fernando Valley. Proposition 13 had passed overwhelmingly in the district, and the incumbent councilman, Robert Wilkinson, was retiring. It would be an open race.
But the best laid plans can go awry, especially when Howard was incapable of saying no to anyone who had helped him. In the middle of the city council campaign I found myself with at least four Jarvis-endorsed opponents! Needless to say, it was a clusterfuck, and the anti-Jarvis candidate won.
Howard and I remained close, but ended up on opposite sides of his next proposed constitutional amendment. When Prop 13 first passed, Howard was leaning toward an amendment that would scuttle the sales tax. Sales taxes are regressive in nature and the burden is most heavily felt by those who can least afford to pay taxes. I fully supported his plan and we began to draft our initiative constitutional amendment to eliminate the sales tax in California.
Then, several rich Republican donors convinced Howard that he should instead target California’s income tax.
Mickey Kantor and I joined forces to defeat Howard’s income tax amendment
At the time, Mickey Kantor was one of the most prominent Democratic organizers and fund raisers in California. He would later become US Trade Representative and then Secretary of Commerce under Bill Clinton. Our collaboration built the largest political coalition in the history of California politics, and scored an upset victory against Jarvis, Ronald Reagan, and the Republican establishment in California.
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