Monday, December 6, 2010
Services Today for Political Consultant Joe Cerrell
Pioneer Advisor to Judicial Candidates Dies at 75
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Services are set for 10 a.m. this morning for Joe Cerrell, one of Los Angeles’ and the nation’s preeminent political consultants and a pioneer in the adaptation of traditional campaign techniques to judicial contests.
Cerrell, 75, passed away Thursday night in Camarillo, near his beach home in Oxnard, of complications from pneumonia. He was, at the time of his death, chairman emeritus of Cerrell Associates Inc., which he and his wife Lee Cerrell founded in 1967 and built into a major political consulting, public relations, and lobbying firm with millions of dollars in annual billings.
While judicial campaigns were a small part of the firm’s overall business, it became known as a go-to source of support for judges and aspirants forced to navigate the unfamiliar turf of electoral politics.
The firm’s involvement in judicial campaigns began in 1978, when about 30 judges, mostly appointees of then-Gov. Jerry Brown, were facing election challenges around the state. Cerrell took on representation of nine candidates in Los Angeles County in that 1978 cycle, including six incumbents, two candidates for open seats, and one challenger—Ronald Schoenberg, who ran against Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Richard Moore—and won every race.
His success earned him the sobriquet “king of the judges” from then-California Judges Association President Harry Low, who went on to become a presiding justice of the First District Court of Appeal.
‘Talents and Skills’
In an interview three years ago, Low explained that he knew Cerrell from the consultant’s days as a top adviser and strategist for Gov. Pat Brown, who had appointed Low to the San Francisco Municipal Court in 1967. Candidates for judge were being asked to take stands on cutting-edge political issues, Low said, and Cerrell had the “talents and skills” to advise judges on politics, along with the “finesse” to avoid crossing the line separating judges from politicians.
Hal Dash, who was working for the firm in those days and is now its chairman and chief executive officer, said he had no idea at the time that judicial campaigns would become a permanent niche.
“We did a slate card, talked to some newspaper editorial boards, and thought it was a onetime shot,” Dash recalled Friday. “Then people started calling, and the next thing you know we started doing seminars on how to run for judge.”
In the ensuing years, Cerrell represented hundreds of judicial candidates, many of whom retained him in expectations of challenges that never came. Before the trial courts in the county were consolidated, Cerrell’s reputation among, and rapport with, the bench officers was such that several municipal court judges who hired him to help them move up to the Superior Court found themselves unopposed.
His success led to the firm being hired by judicial candidates in Riverside, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and San Bernardino counties as well. It was also retained in three different election cycles to run campaigns on behalf of all incumbent justices of this district’s Court of Appeal running in retention elections.
A native of New York, he attended Los Angeles High School and USC, where he founded Trojan Democrats, which brought numerous national figures to the campus. One of them was a young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, and Cerrell subsequently served as personal assistant to Kennedy each time he visited the state.
Dropping out of graduate school, Cerrell also worked on the 1958 campaigns of Jesse Unruh, who was elected to the state Assembly from the district surrounding the campus, and Pat Brown, who became the first Democrat in 20 years to win the governorship.
Those efforts led to Cerrell being appointed executive director of the state Democratic Party, and two years later he became executive assistant to Democratic National Committeeman Stanley Mosk, who was also the state attorney general at the time.
Mosk—whom Cerrell described in an interview as “a man of absolute integrity”— accepted the party post, with the understanding that there would be a complete separation between the Attorney General’s Office and the party.
So Cerrell worked for Mosk, but out of a separate office, paid for by the party. “But I was always proud to tell people I worked for Attorney General Stanley Mosk,” he explained.
After founding Cerrell Associates, he went on to work on the presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert H. Humphrey, Lloyd Bentsen, John Glenn and Al Gore. He also co-founded the Washington, D.C. consulting firm of Palumbo & Cerrell with former Bentsen aide Ben Palumbo.
He also served on the faculties of USC and Pepperdine universities.
While his partisan political activities were always on behalf of Democrats, the self-described moderate worked for a number of Republicans in judicial and other non-partisan races. And he made friends on both sides of the political aisle.
“He was definitely an iconic figure,” Los Angeles District attorney and recent GOP attorney general candidate Steve Cooley said Friday. “Even though his partisan politics were clear, he was well liked by virtually everyone he came in contact with because of his obvious insight into all things politic.”
Cerrell’s ancestors came from the Calabria region of Italy, which he visited several times in the past 25 years. He went on to serve as vice-chair and president of the National Italian American Foundation, vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations, and a member of the California Italian-American Task Force.
In 2002, he received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and, in 2007, the Italian-American Lawyers Association named Cerrell to its Hall of Fame. The Italian government bestowed several awards on Cerrell, including its highest honor, the “Commendatore al Merito Della Republica Italiana” (Knight Commander) decoration.
Cerrell served on the boards of the American Association of Political Consultants and the International Association of Political Consultants and received a Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to campaign consulting from American University’s Campaign Management Institute. In 2007, the AAPC inducted Cerrell into its Hall of Fame, calling him a “pioneer and an innovator in our industry.”
He also served as president of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission.
Besides his wife, whom he met while they were both campaigning for Pat Brown, and married in 1963, he is survived by sons Steve Bullock—the chief financial officer of Cerrell Associates—and Joe Cerrell, and daughter Sharon Cerrell Levy, along with seven grandchildren.
This morning’s services will be held at Christ The King Roman Catholic Church, 624 N. Rossmore Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90004. The family asked that no flowers be sent, and suggested memorial donations to USC’s Unruh Institute of Politics for the “Joseph R. Cerrell Center Circle Scholarship Awards.”
•Joe Cerrell was a friend, a talented strategist and political icon whose sense of fairness and generosity earned him the admiration and respect of leaders of all political stripes—at all levels of government. When I was in Rome to sign the friendship agreement between Los Angeles County and the Roman government, Joe arranged for a private tour of the Vatican where I met and received a Blessing from Pope Benedict.
While he was a lifelong Democrat, he was a supporter of mine and introduced me to his friends, the late journalist Robert Novak and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who became friends of mine. His work on behalf of the Italian community and the various charities he supported is legendary and will benefit many future generations.
—Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich
•Joe was a kind and gentle soul who was more connected than the power grid at San Onofre. He was a friend of the Italian American Lawyers and one night at the Biltmore Hotel, the IALA Board convened for a meeting. Joe regaled me with the many back stories of politicians in the state of California, all of whom he knew. One such politician was Senator John Kennedy in 1960 just before the Democratic primary. Joe traveled the state with the young President-to-be and advised Kennedy on how to take California and with it the nation. John was charming, smoked cigars and drank with Joe. According to Joe, Kennedy had an incredible charisma. I was in awe that I shook hands with the man who shook hands with President Kennedy.
My only regret of that night at the Biltmore is that I didn’t have a tape recording so that his stories would have been transcribed for posterity. There was nothing Joe Cerrell wouldn’t do for the Italian American Lawyers Association. I once asked Joe if he could land Justice Scalia as a speaker. I was informed that it would be impossible because Scalia wouldn’t speak publicly for anyone. I knew Scalia would make an exception for the IALA so I wrote a letter of invitation anyway. Joe volunteered for the suicide mission. Scalia was ambushed in Washington DC. Joe cornered him at the National Italian American Federation meeting and thrust the letter into Scalia’s hands. With a plaintive look and a kind word, Joe asked Scalia if he would speak at a dinner for the IALA. Without a word and with the same interest one would give to yesterday’s racing form, Justice Scalia stuffed the letter in his coat pocket and looked away. I am still waiting for Scalia’s call. God Bless Joe for trying.
—Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Christopher Frisco, Former President, Italian American lawyers Assn.
•When I was on the ballot in 1984, Joe Cerrell was my consultant and in our first meeting, after telling me I was going to win my election, he gave me this advice as to how act during this odd political episode called a judicial campaign, ‘Act like a judge.’ No better advice was ever given.
If you are success on the bench, you display the attributes of one called to judge: obedience to the law; patience; wisdom, courtesy; hard work; love of our Constitutions; respect for public servants in our legislatures and executive branch agencies; and an unrelenting affection for lawyers and the law they practice. These qualities are admirable when displayed by any person (although an affection for lawyers may seem a stretch to those who are not members of the Bar).
In giving that advice, Joe spoke with the wisdom of the ages. Aristotle wrote that the first mode of persuasion of the spoken word was ethos. That is, an orator is persuasive (or has ethos) when the speaker is viewed as having good character. Aristotle wrote: ‘We believe good men (and women) fully and more readily than others….’ Joe knew that if I spoke and acted as a judge, the body politic to whom I spoke would accept me and what I had to say because of the intrinsic goodness of the California judiciary. His insight was solid gold. As a true blue Bruin, I would like to think he developed this insight on his own because they would never teach such truths at USC (but I know they do.) His ability to take Aristotle’s intellectual truth and transform it into an element of a municipal court judge’s campaign was sheer genius. And so he touched my life and my career.
—Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Paul A. Turner of this district’s Div. Five
•Joe Cerrell: a wonderful, generous, caring, loving man who possessed keen human insight and political instincts, and a man who loved living every minute of his life.
—Former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti
Joe was a mentor and a friend. He was always willing and available to help, lend an ear, and provide excellent spot-on advice. His political acumen and analysis was the best. He cared deeply about the Italian and Italian-American communities here in Los Angeles.
—Emilio Varanini, former president, Italian-American Lawyers Association
•I experienced firsthand the extraordinary power and reach of Joe Cerrell on the day after the county opened the application process for public defender 17 years ago. I felt and observed a veritable onslaught that resembled a blitzkrieg of support rolling in for one of the other candidates. It simultaneously startled and galvanized me. A year later we had a great laugh over that.
—Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael Judge
•Joe’s passing is a great loss to us all. He was a walking encyclopedia of politics in California and, indeed, nationwide. Some of my best memories are of sitting down to an Italian lunch or dinner with Joe and just listening to him regale me with stories going back to Eisenhower vs. Stevenson.
More important, Joe was a wonderful man. He was on a first name basis with people of immense power, but was generous to a fault with his time, energy and friendship to everyone—powerful or not. There was no sacrifice or effort he was unwilling to make for his friends.
—Retired U.S. District Court Judge George P. Schiavelli
•Joe Cerrell was a magnificent gentleman and an icon in Los Angeles. Joe understood L.A. and was a trusted confidant and advisor to decades of our political leadership. He was a wonderful friend, we are all better people because we had the gift of Joe’s friendship. He set the bar.
—Brent A. Braun, attorney
•When I was President of the Italian American Lawyers Association, it was my pleasure to induct Joe into our first annual ‘Hall of Fame’ ceremony, to honor him for his achievements for Italian Americans. He had more energy than anyone I’ve ever met, but despite his busy schedule, he always found time to help others.
—Michael R. Diliberto, past president Italian-American Lawyers Association, arbitrator/mediator
•This is one of those days one wishes would never happen. As the sun shines brightly today the heart and soul of those who knew and loved Joe (and there are many) is dark and without joy. Joe Cerrell was both a friend and a mentor to me and to my family. He will always remain one of the finest human beings with whom I have had the pleasure sharing life.
To listen to Joe is to always learn a new lesson. One of the finest traits of any human being was Joe’s...whether a Pope, a President, a Prince or a pauper, he always treated everyone the same—as a human being with dignity and respect. His ability to keep his priorities of family, friends, ethnic and religious pride and practice, and integrity were remarkable. This is a sad day for Los Angles, a sad day for our state, a sad day for our country, but mostly a very sad day for Joe, his wonderful family and his friends. May Joe rest in peace and find the peace and happiness he so richly deserves and may his wife Lee and the family take solace in knowing that there was and will be only one Joe Cerrell, and that he is in a better place. He has changed my world for the better and those whose lives he has touched.
—Lee Kanon Alpert, attorney, president, Los Angeles City Water and Power Commission
•Joe greatly influenced the course of politics and government in California. He was a master strategist, a living political encyclopedia and a true gentleman. We are all fortunate to have known him and learned from him.
—Former Los Angeles District Attorney Robert Philibosian
•The National Italian American Foundation Board of Directors is deeply saddened by the death of the Foundation’s former vice chairman Joseph R. Cerrell….All who worked with him during the 16 years in which he served as the Foundation’s National Vice Chairman (2005-2009), President (1999-2005), and Member (1994-1999) of the Board of Directors, will feel the loss of his friendship, guidance and dedication.
Active in the Italian American community, Joe was admired and respected by Italian and international leaders and all ethnic groups. His visionary leadership and support have advanced the mission of NIAF. Joe’s tireless efforts to stop ethnic stereotyping of any individual or group will be long remembered by all who served with him on the Foundation’s Media Institute and his chairmanship of NIAF’s Public Affairs Committee.
Power broker, veteran campaign consultant, political kingmaker, policy confidant, opinion leader, advisor, professor, mentor and role model are just a few titles that describe the numerous roles Joe played during the more than 50 years he was involved in public affairs.
He was one of the most respected and admired individuals in his profession. Joe advised national leaders from Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to Vice Presidents Hubert H. Humphrey and Albert Gore as well as many state and local officials over the past five decades. He started his career in the 1950s as a student political activist at the University of Southern California and later founded and served as Chairman of Cerrell Associates, Inc., one of California’s oldest, largest and most respected public affairs firms.
His grandparents Giussepina and Francesco Cerrella emigrated from Italy’s region of Calabria. In 1941, when Joe’s father, Salvatore, enrolled his son in school in Queens, N.Y., he dropped the letter ‘A’ from Joe’s last name due to the outbreak of World War II and the discrimination against Italian Americans. Due to his strong family roots, Joe’s passport reflects the original family spelling. On a recent trip to Italy, he was appointed honorary Mayor of Rossano in the province of Cosenza, Italy.
His passion in life was to instill the appreciation for our rich Italian American culture in the hearts of young Italian Americans and challenged them to advance the Foundation’s educational mission through hard work and commitment to NIAF.
—National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) Board of Directors
•My father, Justice Stanley Mosk, when a California member of the Democratic National Committee, hired Joe to work for the Democratic Party in California. Those were great years, filled with accomplishments. Joe helped my father and Jesse Unruh run John Kennedy’s 1960 campaign for President in California. The Mosk family is grateful for the service Joe provided to us, his party, and his country. He was a good friend.
—Court of Appeal Justice Richard M. Mosk of this district’s Div. Five
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company