Mad As Hell”, A Look Back At Prop 13 With The Retro Report On NYTIMES

I just finished a fascinating project with one of the most unique outlets in US journalism these days, The Retro Report. The Retro Report, along with their partners at the New York Times, looks back at news stories which changed our world and offers a new perspective.

The Retro Report segment I produced along with my zen coproducer Dan McKinney is about the conservative populist Howard Jarvis whose tax cutting message took California by storm in the 1970’s. Like a certain contemporary presidential candidate, Jarvis interrupted opponents and called them phonies. Jarvis even adopted the “mad as hell” rallying cry from the 1976 Academy Award winning flick, Network.

Howard Jarvis taxi driver abandons him in the 1980 comedy Airplane

His style caught on. Proposition 13, won in a landslide and California hasn’t been the same since. Bombastic on the outside Jarvis was by most accounts a gentleman privately and a guy with a sense of humor. He had a hilarious cameo in the movie Airplane waiting forever in a taxicab for his driver to return as the meter ticked up and up, something Jarvis would have never tolerated. Then young governor Jerry Brown and Jarvis were friendly, although Brown bitterly opposed Prop 13 and had the nightmare of implementing it.

“Elections have consequences” Tom Hayden, the former sixties activist, state senator and ex husband to Jane Fonda, told us when we visited him in his minimalist Brentwood home. Hayden said Jarvis was a true believer and tried to convert him to his tax cutting cause when he interviewed him in 1978 (Hayden was writing for Rolling Stone back then). No dice on that, but kudos to Jarvis for trying.

Critics like Hayden and former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told us that prop 13 gutted education and other services. Villaraigosa a leading candidate to occupy the governor’s mansion after Brown departs in 2018 (though he would probably prefer a hipster Sacramento loft) says its time to have a conversation about reforming prop 13, especially the part that saves corporations billions every year. But Prop 13 remains popular with homeowners. Jarvis’s longtime aid Joel Fox, says Jarvis’s vision has kept many from losing their homes.

Historian Mark Paul puts what he calls “California’s crackup” in perspective. “Art and music and the rest of it — he (Jarvis) said those were just frills.” Paul says Jarvis gruff persona and message struck a chord with an electorate still reeling from Watergate and the tumult of the 1960’s. “They rolled the dice. The elites told them that this would be a catastrophe, and people just didn’t care.”

In a couple of weeks Californians will likely pull the level in favor of Proposition 55, an extension of Jerry Brown’s tax on wealthy Californians. The tax is seen as a partial solution to the budget shortfalls created by Prop 13.

I wonder if Villaraigosa is right that nearly 40 years after the passage of Prop 13, if Californians are ready for a new conversation about prop 13?

And it was great chatting with John Hockenberry at PRI’s the Takeaway about the mother of all ballot initiatives Monday. It helped propel our documentary to being the number one video on the NYTIMES website today. Maybe folks are looking for a distraction from our current election.