The Player : Jadine Nielsen made sure Alan Cranston was in the right place at the right time for years. Now she’s doing the same for Richard Riordan.
Jadine Nielsen has power. She has the ear of the mayor of the nation’s secondlargest city, she speaks for the mayor, and she certainly has the mayor’s confidence. Indeed, Richard Riordan, the new mayor of Los Angeles, likes to say that she can not only turn Los Angeles around, but “she’s tough enough to turn the world around.”
One of Riordan’s five deputy mayors, Nielsen is actually the first among equals, with the most responsibility, the most authority, the highest pay. She’s also the first Asian-American to hold such a position and maybe even the first San Franciscan.
For all that, she’s relatively unknown. She has always worked for someone else’s glory, usually behind the scenes. In spite of two decades in politics, she has so little ego that she thinks an ability to “focus” is her greatest gift. And when asked about her power, she shrugs and says, “Power is just being at the table at meetings that count, and I’m at the table.”
She has sat at such tables before--as former U. S. Sen. Alan Cranston’s California state director, as Bill Clinton’s Northern California campaign manager, then his California scheduling director, as campaign manager for Richard Riordan, the unknown non-politician who became mayor. Jadine Nielsen, says Roy Greenaway, Cranston’s national staff director for 24 years, “is probably the best scheduler around.”
That’s scheduler, as in Nielsen’s own credo: “The scheduling moves the message.” To those who talk this way--and Riordan’s victory should expand their numbers--scheduling is no mere activity involving pen and calendar. It’s a professional expertise based on the idea that issues gather strength not just from words but from the time, event, audience and place where they are aired.
Not surprisingly, its practitioners are not philosophers but organizers, not Clintonian policy wonks but agenda pushers. They deal not in visions but in defined goals. And they stay on target.
It’s possible that Jadine Nielsen was born that way. Now 44, a small woman who is quiet without being shy or reluctant, she has had a sense of focus since grammar school. “I’m very centered,” she says. “I don’t lose sight of what the problem is, how to solve it, who’s the problem and who’s the solution.”
She grew up in San Francisco as Jadine Chin--"Jadine” from jade, suggested by a great-aunt who wanted her to be different. Her father, an immigrant from China, was a waiter and a grocer. Her mother was born in Rio Vista, south of Sacramento, but grew up in China. A homemaker when her children were small, she later worked as a seamstress, so rooted in the Chinese community that even today she understands but doesn’t speak English.
Nielsen was one of three sisters, all apparently possessing this focus: the other two are office managers. Chris Nielsen, Jadine’s husband of 23 years, calls them “generals, with small troops. They’re all strong, independent women and are understood as being in charge within their families. Jadine is the oldest--among equals, the most equal of all.”
Chris Nielsen--as light and casual as she is cool and deliberate--met Jadine in the choir of San Francisco’s First Chinese Baptist Church, which he joined after hearing it sing one day as he walked by. She was 19, he says, “and obviously different. It’s a good thing I was five years older. I distinctly remember the maturity and a gift of judgment about things, an instinct for right and wrong. Jay’s an instinctive decision-maker.”
Oddly enough, she was also “one of those people who don’t plan,” at least for herself: her life just “evolved.” Right out of high school, she took a secretarial job in the San Francisco Unified School District, leaving in 1973 when she heard that Cranston needed a receptionist.
She was with Cranston almost two decades, moving through staff positions from receptionist to director of California operations. There she worked with Greenaway, one of the earliest advocates of what he calls “proactive scheduling,” in the mold of Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan’s master handler.
Literally, it just means “not reactive,” says Greenaway. “We never just accepted an invitation. We always organized everything ourselves because we had specific things we wanted to talk about, specific things we wanted to accomplish. So we’d go out and find the kinds of events we wanted, and the people who could do (them).”
For Nielsen, it was a perfect fit. “She’s extremely well-organized,” says Greenaway.
More than that, says Maeley Tom, chief of staff to state Sen. David Roberti (D-Van Nuys), and Nielsen’s good friend, “she’s aware of the ramifications of whatever she schedules. She has outstanding organization skills and very good political instincts for any pitfalls.”
Nielsen herself says only, “I’m very focused"--as close as she comes to a boast.
In the spring of 1992, she was brought into Clinton’s California presidential campaign by Bill Wardlaw, the influential Los Angeles lawyer who has managed campaigns for Cranston, Jerry Brown, Ira Reiner, Clinton and Riordan. When Nielsen says “the scheduling moves the message,” she means that “if Clinton wanted to focus on jobs, we looked at what areas we wanted to cover, geographically and politically--not just what he was going to say, but where.” Al Gore talked about the environment from a rock at the Monterey Peninsula, “a positive backdrop.”
When the topic was education, they put on a “children’s town meeting” in Fresno, so children could talk about their parents’ unemployment, jobs, pesticides and education. “You keep the visual in mind,” says Nielsen, “but you never lose sight of what the issue is.”
For all her campaign work, Nielsen never considered going to Washington with the winner, the traditional reward. It wasn’t a reluctance to leave her home in the Richmond district of San Francisco, where her husband works part time in the National Park Service’s western regional office. During the Clinton campaign, she had been living half time in Southern California.
In fact, Wardlaw had already introduced her to Riordan, and she’d already accepted a job in his campaign. So after Clinton’s victory on a Tuesday and the staff party Thursday in Little Rock, “we all came back Friday night, and when we got off the plane, everyone was joking, ‘See you at the staff meeting at 8 tomorrow morning!’ and the next morning I really did have a campaign meeting with Riordan.”
A lifelong Democrat, Nielsen had signed on to a campaign for a nonpartisan office with a registered Republican, going “a lot on gut,” says her husband. For one thing, she liked Riordan, believing that he’s in politics because “he has been successful in whatever he tried, and he has a great need and desire to give something back.”
For another, the race posed an interesting problem: “Nobody supported Richard Riordan--only 4% of people in an L.A. Times poll in February,” Nielsen says. “But I knew that when people met him, they would like him.”
Riordan’s emphasis--on safety and jobs--was established early. “The day after the primary,” says Nielsen, “we went to South-Central L.A.--we had to move to where Woo’s strength might be--and brought in business people. Riordan’s message was: For business to thrive, you have to have safe streets.”
Then “you maintain the focus, but when things come at you, you deal with them.” Everyone was surprised when “first out of the box, Woo was running on the fact that Riordan was a Republican, but we stayed focused on the issues, making every effort to schedule Riordan in front of diverse groups.” Similarly, the very day that Clinton endorsed Woo--another surprise--"we went to a middle-class Democratic family in the San Fernando Valley, (and talked) about safety and jobs.”
Through the campaign, Nielsen says with satisfaction, “Woo changed a lot. We stayed focused.”
She went from campaign to cabinet and full-time life in Los Angeles--not a problem for her and her husband, says Nielsen, because “we dealt with that a long time ago.” During the mayoral campaign, the Nielsens saw each other only on occasional weekends. Chris Nielsen, who also works as an inventor (of a patented toothbrush holder, for one thing), was mostly in San Francisco, where Jadine’s mother and sisters fed him and loaded him up with food packages he only had to pop into the microwave. Jadine was in a Los Angeles guest house, also with a microwave, often cooking packages of food her mother sent her when Chris came down.
Now, however, Nielsen has taken an apartment in Brentwood, “made a list for my husband” of the things to be moved and is looking forward to a normal life. Normal life is long weekends together, probably here.
The more prevalent question, of course, is not what Los Angeles is going to do for Jadine Nielsen, but what is she going to do for Los Angeles. Riordan--mentioning her focus, like everyone else--has a pretty good idea. “We have plenty of people with vision,” he says. “But vision is about 2.7% of the equation, and implementation is 97.3%.
“You look around this city. Everywhere you can think of, there has been a plan made, but nobody ever implemented it. The implementer is the real hero: That’s where Jadine is the genius. She’s the 97.3%.”
Nielsen’s own focus, for now, is on “learning my job,” which is actually somewhat similar to campaign scheduling. It’s less lucrative: as deputy mayor for executive and legislative services, she’ll earn $99,600--$10,000 more than the other deputies, but less than she earned during the campaign. But it involves a lot of what she calls “outreach” or “proactive field work"--the matching up of issues and “players” that has always been her expertise.
What’s really new to her is City Hall--its mechanics, its budgets, the City Council, the city ordinance procedures. And she’s busy enough “learning the ropes” that she hasn’t yet hired all her personal staff: “I want to see what I need first.”
She’s not about to be pushed either, on any score. Many people, like Roberti aide Maeley Tom for example, assume that “there could be double duty here for Jadine--not just for her skills but for the Asian-Pacific outreach.” There’s already considerable grumbling in the Asian-American community about the lack of Asian-Americans among Riordan’s purposely diverse appointments.
Nielsen says only that she will continue her longtime involvement in Asian-American interests. And, adding that she’s “dealing with many issues and many constituents,” she brushes off criticism that there are no Asian-Americans on this or that board--the Police Commission, for example, or the Harbor Commission. “We approached the problem without thinking there’s an Asian slot on every commission, or any quotas at all, but just who are the best people. Besides,” she adds, “we’re not through yet.”
She brushes off as well suggestions that she’ll wield special power in her new position. As she says, power is that seat at the table, “just being there when anything is discussed--commission appointments, even how the mayor spends his time.” And being treated as powerful won’t be a shock: “I’ve always inside me sensed I had power, and when some people treat me differently now, it just reaffirms it. Self-esteem comes from inside and power, too.”
Where this power and this position could take her is not something she thinks about. Remember, she says, she never plans ahead, at least not for herself: “I don’t go into anything thinking it would lead to something.”