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Joe Cerrell dies at 75; prominent California political consultant

Obituaries

Joe Cerrell, a prominent political consultant who over several decades helped steer successful campaigns for both the presidency and top offices in California, died Friday. He was 75.

Cerrell, who had pneumonia, died at St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo, his family said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called him the "indefatigable wise man of California politics" whom "you could always count on … to give it to you straight, and with a big dose of his characteristic humor."

Cerrell's list of clients and friendships read like a "Who's Who" of politics from the 1950s onward: John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Al Gore, Willie Brown, Jesse Unruh and both Pat Brown and his son, Gov.-elect Jerry Brown.

At 24, Cerrell was chosen to lead the California Democratic Party, then the youngest person to hold the post, said family and friends.

In 1967, he started Cerrell Associates, a leading public relations firm and powerful lobbying presence at Los Angeles City Hall.

Cerrell was "one of the pioneering political consultants," former Vice President Gore said. "He was also a great champion of progressive political causes" who advised presidents as well as local, state and national candidates.

For politicians, Cerrell was master organizer, advance man and strategist, planning itineraries to the minute and managing every detail.

When Lyndon Johnson wanted a back rub in 1962, Cerrell found a blind man — a darned good masseur, at that — to avoid any rumors that might pop up after a massage from an attractive woman, according to a 1972 Times article.

He knew how to flatter donors and what to say to the media, according to his colleagues. In later years, he became a quotation machine for reporters.

Explaining the current governor's success with voters, he said: "They voted for the Terminator.... They weren't voting for Arnold Schwarzenegger."

He arranged West Coast political trips for Kennedy starting in the mid-1950s when JFK was the junior senator from Massachusetts and Cerrell a junior in college.

Kennedy later would urge him to marry campaign worker Lee Bullock, with whom Cerrell recently celebrated his 47th wedding anniversary. They delayed their wedding at the request of then-Vice President Johnson so that Cerrell and his fiancee could oversee an event.

Honeymooning in Paris in 1963, the couple saw the headline "Kennedy Shot" on a newsstand and wept.

Cerrell also was active in civic causes, heading the Coliseum Commission and spearheading the construction of the IMAX Theater at the California Science Center.

In the no-holds-barred world of political consulting, Cerrell managed to be loyally Democratic without creating enemies.

"When the campaign was over, we talked to each other; we'd go out to dinner," said veteran Republican consultant Stu Spencer.

He was born Joseph Cerrella on June 19, 1935, in New York City, the son of Sal, a Catholic Italian American firefighter, and Marion, a Jewish switchboard operator.

In 1941, Cerrell's parents dropped the final A from their name, hoping to protect their son from anti-Italian sentiment during World War II.

A decade later, Cerrell moved to Los Angeles, where he finished high school. He earned a degree in political science in 1957 from USC, where he later taught for 15 years.

Cerrell's work on behalf of political newcomer Unruh in 1954 led to a long association with state Democrats, who elevated him to lead the party after Pat Brown's successful 1958 gubernatorial campaign.

But Cerrell's modest-paying job stretched his personal resources, as Cerrell recounted in one of his many anecdotes.

He was accompanying Kennedy to Mass during a campaign swing. When the time came, Cerrell put a few dollars in the collection plate, then a few more when Kennedy revealed he was carrying no money. Kennedy protested that he wanted no less than $20 donated on his behalf.

Cerrell reluctantly emptied his wallet and later noted, with a twinkle in his eye, that the wealthy Kennedy never paid him back.

In the late 1960s, Cerrell lost ground in the party as moderates gave way to more liberal, anti- Vietnam War activists. Though he wasn't at the center of the influential local labor/Democratic alliance, he never lacked for prominent corporate clients or political roles.

A 1987 trip to Italy sparked an interest in Italian culture and causes that led him to forge close ties with that country's leaders.

Besides his wife, survivors include daughter Sharon Cerrell Levy of Sherman Oaks; son Joe Cerrell of London; stepson Steve Bullock of Burbank; and seven grandchildren.

Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday at Christ the King Roman Catholic Church, 624 N. Rossmore Ave., Los Angeles.

Hal Dash, the chief executive at Cerrell Associates, said modern political operatives could take a lesson from Cerrell.

"He hated partisanship and bickering," Dash said, "because nothing got done."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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