THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Mr. Fix-It : When things don’t run right in California, the White House calls on John Emerson. His job? Ensuring that the politicians--and the voters--are happy.
John Emerson has helped win political fights for Gary Hart, Jerry Brown and his current boss, President Clinton. But the victory he wanted so badly for himself, and gave away, tells his story best.
Fifteen candidates were running for a state Assembly seat from the Silver Lake-Echo Park district in 1991, in a punishing contest that gave new meaning to descriptions of Southern California as the Beirut of American politics.
Emerson, then Los Angeles’ chief deputy city attorney, claimed an early lead. But after the opposition, in a cannonade of denunciations, painted him a bureaucrat, a pol and a carpetbagger (he had moved half a mile into the district), the lead was seized by Barbara Friedman, the candidate backed by labor and the influential organization of Reps. Howard Berman and Henry Waxman.
Friends and advisers urged Emerson, who hadn’t criticized his rivals, to mount a quick counterattack.
“There was no question what this would mean,” says Rick Allen, who has been Emerson’s best friend for 19 years and is the No. 2 official in the new national service program for young people. “If he did one mailing, he would win.”
But Emerson would do no such thing. He thought it would undercut efforts to win points for waging a clean campaign and risk alienating Democratic friends, including those in organized labor.
“My gut told me not to,” Emerson says.
He came within 31 votes of victory, entitling him to a recount. But he wouldn’t go for that either, reasoning that it might foster bitterness among his competitors.
Emerson’s political friends nod knowingly at this story, because it seems to capture his essence. “Emo,” as they call him, wants to always preserve his carefully cultivated relationships for another day. To minimize friction. To make sure everybody is heard from, everybody is happy.
All this oiling of the waters makes the 40-year-old lawyer an unusual figure in boisterous California politics, but it has served him well.
Among his other roles as a deputy assistant to the President, Emerson is a sort of untitled ambassador to California, in charge of ensuring that federal services are delivered, that the state’s politicians are kept happy and that the White House has laid the groundwork to win 54 electoral votes in 1996. As such, he coordinated the Administration response to the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, a $10.3-billion project that mobilized several dozen federal agencies and most of the Cabinet secretaries.
In California, where Democrats feud among themselves almost as bitterly as with the Republicans, serving as Washington’s emissary is no easy assignment.
It requires someone who can walk through a jostling, scuffling, elbow-throwing crowd and emerge with his tie crisply knotted and a smile still on his face. Someone like Emerson.
“Dealing with California is dealing with enormous egos and enormous stakes,” says Tony Coelho, a former House Democratic leader and an outside adviser to the White House. “That tells you all you need to know about the confidence the President has in this kid.”
Emerson’s diplomatic skills also have been in demand this past year in his role as deputy White House personnel chief, a job that, because of ethnic and gender diversity issues, guarantees controversy.
Emerson came to these positions with a surprisingly long political resume. He was Clinton’s California campaign manager in 1992; deputy national campaign manager for Gary Hart’s 1986-1987 presidential bid; Hart’s California chairman in 1984, and general counsel for Jerry Brown’s 1982 U.S. Senate bid.
Some believe the key to deconstructing Emerson’s personality lies in the fact that his father is a retired Presbyterian minister, his mother a social worker.
“If you’re a minister’s son, you’ve always got to stay on your best behavior: You never know when you may run into a member of the congregation,” says David Dreyer, a White House aide who worked with Emerson on the Hart campaign.
Mark Lichtman, a Los Angeles political consultant who worked for a different candidate in the 1991 Assembly race, acknowledges that he’s still baffled by Emerson’s campaign move--and by his unfailingly sunny disposition. “The guy is just, well--terminally nice,” he says with a hint of exasperation.
Emerson’s upbringing does make his temperament and interests seem more understandable.
His maternal grandfather, John Sutherland Bonnell, and his father, James G. Emerson, were prominent Presbyterian ministers. The Rev. Bonnell was well-known as one of the first to challenge Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
When Emerson was growing up, primarily in the New York City suburbs of Bloomfield, N.J., and Larchmont, N.Y., he heard regular talk of his family’s social and political concerns. He got involved in politics during his college years, taking part in anti-war rallies and walking New York precincts to help Democratic Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.
Emerson flirted briefly with the idea of becoming a minister but decided against it: “I wanted to seek my own path.”
A graduate of Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and the University of Chicago Law School, Emerson moved to Southern California in 1978 to take a job with the politically influential Los Angeles firm Manatt, Phelps, Phillips & Kantor. Its founder, Charles T. Manatt, once chaired the Democratic National Committee. Emerson became a partner, built friendships with such firm members as U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, and assembled a huge network of other political contacts and friends.
The value of those ties was evident in January after the earthquake, when Emerson was in the first group of officials to arrive from Washington. With his black cowboy boots and a cellular telephone often pressed to his ear, he swiftly became a familiar sight in the disaster zone.
As one official explained, the goal in such a crisis is to prevent any hint of disorganization among government officials, lest panic ensue. “If it looks like there’s panic, you can kiss it goodby,” he said.
A critical test came early, in a brouhaha over the distribution of food stamps. The screening had been lax, drawing crowds of unqualified applicants to social service offices and contributing to fights and shoving matches that had police worried.
“No one was taking responsibility for fixing it, and the bad publicity was threatening to drown out everything good we were doing,” another official said.
Emerson, playing the role of a sort of master air traffic controller, started looking for a solution. He called County Supervisor Gloria Molina, Sheriff Sherman Block, the mayor’s office and various federal authorities. After an ear-bruising half-day of cellular bonding, the team decided to switch to a network of fewer but larger processing centers, where more effective controls and police surveillance could be implemented.
Some local officials were not happy to see centers moved out of their neighborhoods, but the crisis passed.
“I was the guy who could do it, because no other federal official would feel like I was from another agency trying to give them orders,” Emerson says.
Managing the earthquake aftermath required careful acknowledgment of political realities in other areas as well.
Emerson engineered a very public federal response to South-Central Los Angeles in hopes of showing government support of victims of other tragedies. Federal contractors were prodded to not only hire minority firms but to offer jobs to those displaced by the quake and by the Los Angeles riots.
He also spent a day in the Simi Valley district of Rep. Elton Gallegy, a Republican, to forestall brewing criticism that the federal team was lax in assessing damage in outlying areas.
His calming influence was also felt in Clinton’s 1992 campaign in California.
Toward the end of the primary season, the Clinton team was coming under fire from headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., for being a low-energy outfit that was wasn’t fully succeeding in mobilizing its own troops, much less the voters. Emerson, who brought the effort new access to top California Democrats, joined the organization in May and took over after the June election.
Central to Emerson’s approach is the idea of hearing everybody’s views, even if such consultation sometimes comes at the cost of some administrative convenience.
As he reorganized the campaign, Emerson inaugurated a daily meeting. He invited so many people to attend that a body sat on every surface, his desk included. Others stood outside, poking their heads through the door.
It was, in fact, the type of freewheeling brainstorming session that would prevail in the White House. “This was very much on the Clinton model,” one participant says. “You could maybe say that we didn’t get as much business transacted as we needed to, but it was very, very inclusive.”
That everybody-in approach also helped defuse complaints from powerful Friends of Bill, including television producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who thought they ought to have a bigger role in the operation. Under Emerson, the FOBs were treated to special briefings and given a greater say in the campaign.
Clinton eventually surged to a 15-point lead in California, but powerful elected officials and contributors continued to bicker over vote drives, fund-raisers and such seemingly petty details as who would sit in the candidate’s limo when he came to town.
When opposing forces tried to keep each other out of an event altogether, Emerson had to intervene.
“He would say, ‘You have to pull the other faction into this, or I am pulling the event. Period,’ ” recalls one campaign team member.
Having run the final days of Hart’s 1987 campaign, Emerson was well-equipped to cope with discord.
After news stories about the former Colorado senator’s extramarital affair rocked the campaign off course and led to the resignation of its manager, Emerson became part of a troika managing the moribund cause from Denver.
His friend Rick Allen says Emerson played the role of the cinematic Davy Crockett at the Alamo, shoring up the brave few before they met their doom.
Other veterans of that campaign recall Emerson’s comment to backer Warren Beatty on the day that a defiant Hart, in a press conference, backed out of the race.
The actor had been urging Hart to hang in there. Emerson knew it was too late.
“Warren, it’s raining concrete,” he told Beatty.
With a reputation as one who tries so hard to maintain good relations, some thought Emerson ill-suited for his first White House post as deputy director of personnel.
Of the task of filling the federal ranks, Emerson will say only: “It is impossible to describe the rush, the flood, the phone calls and faxes, and pure human Angst at the beginning of an Administration, when its party has been out of power for 12 years.”
He obviously relished the chance to hire Californians, more than 200 of them. “There are three times as many Californians in this Administration as Arkansans,” Emerson says.
He does acknowledge a few trying moments surrounding ambassadorial appointments, for which he was directly responsible. The Foreign Service Assn., which represents career diplomats, challenged four Administration nominations in a push for the hiring of more of its members.
Among the disputed nominees was an Emerson friend, M. Larry Lawrence, the San Diego hotelier and financier who was central to Clinton’s California campaign. Lawrence handily cleared the Senate as ambassador to Switzerland but was criticized for referring in a hearing to the staunchly neutral country as a U.S. ally.
“Nobody likes to read in the paper that they’re unqualified,” Emerson says. “But he’s a very appropriate candidate for Switzerland.”
With his earthquake relief work winding down, Emerson has gotten a new assignment, as the White House point man in the campaign to pass the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade through Congress. He is also responsible for projects involving Western water issues.
Despite the demands on his time, Emerson remains a social creature. He and his wife “are still usually the ones bringing people together,” Allen says.
And he seems to relish the opportunities for hobnobbing--vacationing at the Jackson Hole, Wyo., ranch of Treasury Undersecretary Roger Altman, flying to California with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, watching basketball games and jogging with the President.
Although serious about public policy, he is not, as Michael Dukakis was, the kind of public servant who keeps Swedish urban planning guides on his bed stand.
He says he can name the winners of the Best Picture Oscars for the past 10 years; the interest in films stems in part from his wife, Kimberly Marteau, a lawyer and former vice president of Savoy Pictures who now heads public information for the U.S. Information Agency. (During her years at UCLA, Marteau had an acting role as a “sweat hog” on TV’s “Welcome Back, Kotter.”)
The couple met in California during the 1988 presidential campaign, when she was doing advance work for Dukakis. They moved last year from the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles to Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, a section a few blocks north of the White House where the trendy and the rundown mingle. They are expecting a child, their first, this summer.
Emerson has a few industry ties of his own, including friendships with screenwriter Gary Ross (“Dave”), Disney executives John Cook and the late Frank Wells, and actor Mike Farrell.
Such connections paid off in his Assembly campaign. In 12 weeks, he raised a formidable $350,000 from 800 contributors, allowing him to avoid accepting money from political action committees.
The Assembly campaign showed, too, a bit about the approach Emerson will take in a confrontation.
One May evening in a debate at Los Angeles Community College, fellow candidate Adam Schiff gave him a thorough going-over. A federal prosecutor, Schiff derided Emerson’s credentials as chief deputy city attorney and even ridiculed the tiny souvenir flashlights Emerson had passed out to voters as a symbol of his anti-crime-centered campaign.
Crime-fighting, Schiff raged, was about bigger things than flashlights.
The crowd sucked in a breath, and all heads swiveled toward Emerson, apparently expecting a thunderous counterpunch. But they didn’t know this guy.
“I guess Adam hasn’t gotten his flashlight yet,” he said mildly.
A burst of laughter and applause followed. John Emerson needed to say no more.
Native: No; lives in Washington, D.C.
Family: Married to Kimberly Marteau (pictured with John); expecting first child this summer.
Interests: Movies, hobnobbing with the politically important.
On deciding against his father’s line of work, the ministry: “I wanted to seek my own path.”
On not asking for a recount after narrow defeat in Assembly race: “My gut told me not to.”
On filling the federal ranks in his role as deputy White House personnel chief: “It is impossible to describe the rush, the flood, the phone calls and faxes, and pure human Angst at the beginning of an Administration, when its party has been out of power for 12 years.”
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