Mother of all Gus Ayer Tributes.




A mentor to all of us.  The red shirt dates this to the Fairgrounds struggle – it symbolized “Derailing the Sale.”

Some men – many powerful men (mostly men) in Orange County must be secretly breathing a sigh of relief right now – I’m talking about corrupt men (and women) in the county who see government as mostly a way to enrich and empower themselves and their friends, and who see us citizens as inconveniences to be humored and kept in the dark – those men must be, despite themselves, overflowing with relief to not have to face another withering, brilliant, impromptu jeremiad from the righteous, furious mouth of former Fountain Valley Mayor Gustav Ayer.

And also, to be facing no more “Mayor Quimby” articles on the Orange Juice Blog.

letting ’em have it… (photo courtesy of The Pot Stirrer)

The rest of us mainly remember that great, unforgettable laugh.  I mean, that unbridled, infectious, lion’s roar of joie de vivre we heard so many hundreds of times.  If you had him on the phone, you would move that phone from your ear, and your friends would hear it across the room, and laugh along, and say, “Is that Gus?  I got something to tell him…”

Nobody bad could laugh like that.

And what a great last year he had – who could hope for such a great last year – and I’m not even talking about the string of political victories he had in November – I’ll save those for later.  But even apart from that I dare you to have planned a more kickass last year for your life.  He practiced hiking in the eastern Sierras for the big trip he made to Macchu Picchu with his wife and HB mayor Connie Boardman.  Last June he hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back.  It seemed like half the time I called him (which was most days) he was bragging about his last big hike. And he and his lovely Chinese-American wife Verna were just about to make a trip to Istanbul.  Whatever it turns out was his cause of death, ’twasn’t for lack of exercise and travel.

This might be the place to note – not that I would know – but a woman who got the chance to hug him a lot attests to the fact that even though he resembled a fluffy marshmallow he felt “strong and solid,” and also “always smelled really clean” – an observation that surprised me, having caught him spilling food on his torso several times.

It was a great last year or two, for Gus…

Gus Ayer with Obama
…especially considering the depression of 2009.  Let me back up.  I met him in 2006, but my buddies the Choctaw Sisters met him three years earlier, when he was Fountain Valley Mayor (he’ll always be Mayor Ayer to us) and a fierce partisan of Howard Dean, and later Barack Obama.  Even though he was still a registered Republican (so that he could vote for a Republican friend of his, of whom he thought highly.)  Ah, those innocent less-partisan days of the early aughts – no longer is it so easy for a Democrat, no matter how competent and popular, to win local office in a Republican town.  When it got out that he had switched back to Dem, that was the beginning of his downfall from FV city council.. but we’ll get there.

In the year 2008 we really thought we had the candidate that could beat deranged career politician, immigrant-basher, climate-change denier, torture-joker Congressman Dana Rohrabacher – which was the very smart and charismatic former HB Mayor Debbie Cook.  Gus and I, and Joe Shaw and others, poured months of work into making that happen.  Here is the story of us making the trek up to Hollywood to schmooze and fundraise with some liberal blog stars that year.  (I was writing for this blog by then.)

Debbie was defeated that year, as was Gus in his bid for re-election to FV Council.  One of Debbie’s downfalls, and certainly Gus’, was their opposition that year to putting an “In God We Trust” plaque on the walls of their city council chambers – they both found it borderline-unconstitutional and certainly inappropriate and anti-democratic.  Gus’ quote that made the papers was City Hall is not the place to be discussing theology.”  This principled stand was used against him ruthlessly by his opponent Mark McCurdy, who somehow got away with making full use of his Holy Cross Catholic Church‘s weekly bulletin to trash Gus as an “atheist” and advertise himself as a great and Godly Politician.  (As recently as this last October, Gus begged off going into Fountain Valley chambers with me and Diana Carey, claiming that if he saw those morons on the dais, and the religious plaque on the wall, he would “enter a dark place” and drink for two weeks.  I know the feeling…)

The defeat of Debbie and Gus, along with Californians’ approval of the despicable Prop 8, sent both me and Gus into a depression.  Gus spent a lot of 2009 out of commission, and I got a (low-level) DUI and spent a lot of that year in jail.  Debbie Cook, remarkably, sent me something to read every single day I was incarcerated (mostly on her favorite topics of energy and peak oil.)  Joe Shaw sent me some great books including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  And Gus sent me a couple of nearly illegible handwritten letters about how corrupt and incompetent the OC Fair Board was.

The OC Fair Board???

Fighting the Great Fairgrounds Swindle, and more…

No sooner did I get out of jail than Gus dragged me over to the next Fair Board meeting, and for most of 2010 we were fighting the crooked Dave Ellis, Dick Ackerman and Dale Dykema in their attempt to privatize the priceless OC property and sell it to themselves.  That story has been told plenty on this blog.  But if justice is ever done, it will be based on not the sham investigation by DA Rackauckas, but the amazing Annotated DA’s Report prepared by Gus over the course of months.  It is dynamite, for any law enforcer who actually cares about the law.  (If you want to see it, I still have to upload the whole thing – it’s 70+ pages.)

During that fight we discovered the brilliant Greg “Gericault” Ridge, the only political activist that gave Gus a run for his money in passion, humor, and energy;  they became best friends, and it was Greg who broke the bad news to me yesterday.  Although it’s arguable the lion’s share of credit for defeating the Great Fairgrounds Swindle should go to four tireless investigating women:  Sandy Genis, Theresa Sears, Katrina Foley, and Reggie Mundekis.

Also that year, more and more active in the Democratic Party of OC, Gus wrote the resolution supporting Propostion 19 for marijuana legalization and regulation, which passed fairly easily.  [UPDATE – How could I forget – in 2010 he also ran the victorious campaigns of Joe Shaw and Connie Boardman in Huntington Beach, laying the groundwork for the splendid progressive/environmentalist majority Surf City enjoys today.]

Most of his great victories occurred in 2012 though…

Let me just condense Gus’ triumphant 2012 victories into a bullet list, or we’ll be here all fucking day:

  • We defeated the scheme to put toll lanes on the 405 (though it could come back);  as part of that fight Gus created the No 405 website;  as a side effect we helped get Diana Lee Carey, who’d been active on that issue longer than anyone, onto the Wesminster City Council in November.
  • He was instrumental in defeating Chevron’s plans to develop Coyote Hills up in Fullerton;
  • He was instrumental in defeating Matt Cunningham’s developer friends in Orange;
  • He was instrumental in defeating Jim Righeimer’s labor-destroying charter in Costa Mesa;
  • He was instrumental in creating a positive majority in Huntington Beach with Jill Hardy and Jim Katopodis, and getting Sandy Genis back onto the Costa Mesa Council;  as well as defeating the government-destroying Measure Z in HB.

His secret in Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, and elsewhere, was creating alliances between groups that hadn’t used to co-operate but were both victimized by the local Republicans – public safety unions and environmentalists.

And YET – when we discussed Fullerton, he sounded a lot like Tony Bushala, claiming that it had been one of the worst-run cities in the county under BOTH parties;  that the notorious water tax was definitely illegal, and that the establishment pols of both sides had been brainless irresponsible slaves to public employee unions.   I said, “My God, you sound just like Tony Bushala.”  He said, “Yeah, I’d love to talk to those guys some day.  They just need to learn to respect their city employees a little more.  WHAT THEY NEED TO DO, what Travis and Sebourn and Bruce W need to do, is go down to the shops where their employees work, see what they do, and they’ll start to forget the whole idea of outsourcing those jobs – these are not things you want outsiders doing.”  His only campaign of last November that was quixotic and didn’t win was the one for Green council candidate Jane Rands:  His opinion of Democratic darling Jan Flory was as low as mine was/is.

I did really want him to meet the Bushala crowd, and Cynthia Ward, Jason Young, Dr. Jose Moreno and Mayor Tait.  They all had so much they could learn from each other.  Not to happen it seems.

Surf City Voice investigative journalist and Green activist John Earl, despite his severe allergy to Democrats in general, came to respect and love Gus over the past half year, as they both fought Poseidon Desalination and miscellaneous water-related hinkiness.  John describes Gus as a cross between Rumpole of the Bailey and Benjamin Franklin, and expresses amazement at the encyclopedic nature of his knowledge, his actual hunger for reading thick sheafs of dry documents and sucking the truth out of them, and his endless life-affirming wit.

I think we can distill his philosophy down to this:  making government work for people, and keeping it transparent and honest.  Simple stuff, and not partisan at all.

Two THREE more things he was real proud of…

“Bonus son” Ron Cooke. I tracked him down.

Yeah, only the fact that ALSO in the year of 2012, he managed to make his home AND car 100% energy-sufficient – with solar panels on his roof, and a “Nissan Leaf powered by California sunlight,” he actually made money selling electricity back to SCE;  AND

As far as his family goes:  Everyone will mention his lovely wife Verna and his two great sons Elliot and Ethan.  I FEEL IT INCUMBENT ON ME to mention that he also always bragged about what he called his “Bonus Son,” a young man called Ron who was pretty much brought up by the family and went on to serve several tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  So, I WILL NOT ALLOW the Bonus Son to fall through the cracks!

UPDATE:  I had nearly forgotten till the Choctaw sisters reminded me – this is perhaps his most concrete effort toward the betterment of humanity:  His favorite brand of ICE CREAM, GRAETER’S ICE CREAM, made in his home town of Cincinatti (Ice Cream Capital of the World,) has just recently become available “out here” in California.  He urged everybody to try it, and frequently backed that up by buying his friends huge tubs of the rich stuff at Ralph’s or Albertson’s.

WARNING:  Once you’ve gone Graeter’s you may never go back to Ben & Jerry’s or Haagen-Dazs.


His Final Project – Defeating Poseidon’s HB Desalination Plant.

I’m wrapping this up for now so I can publish this;  but definitely check out the website linked to above – this was his latest project.  The desalination plant proposed by Poseidon is not only environmentally destructive but a total taxpayer & ratepayer ripoff.  Just check out the site, the last big thing Gus created.  And let’s win this last one.  Let’s win this for the Gusser!

Gus Ayer, born Christmas “Gus-mas” 1949, died Ash Wednesday 2013.

Service will be Sunday, Feb. 24 from 2-4 pm at the Nature Center at Mile Square Park – the Nature Center which he helped create.  I’ll be playing the piano.


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.