Quake as a Political Mover and Shaker

The question may seem cynical, perhaps even rude. But in a conversation with John Emerson, it also seems appropriate.

Emerson, a genial Clinton Administration official from Los Angeles, was sitting in his quarters in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House, discussing his role as the President's point man on the Northridge earthquake. The 40-year-old lawyer is proud of having helped funnel more than $10.3 billion in aid to the city he calls home.

Emerson points out that $10.3 billion is triple the annual budget of the city of Los Angeles. It is so much money that some economists even cite it as a "spark" for California's nascent economic recovery.

Now add that to the fact that Clinton, eyeing reelection in '96, covets California and its 54 electoral votes. The question becomes obvious:

Was the earthquake good for President Clinton?

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Emerson could see this one coming. If he hasn't heard the question before, he has surely entertained the notion. A former deputy to City Atty. James Hahn, Emerson is a canny political operator who played a key role in Sen. Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign and later supported Sen. Bob Kerrey's presidential bid before joining the Clinton cause. Emerson, who narrowly lost in his own bid for a state Assembly seat in 1991, ran Clinton's California campaign and was rewarded with an appointment as deputy assistant to the President. Emerson handles personnel matters and special assignments. He's a political ambassador to California--and, especially, an expert on all things Angeleno.

My interest in meeting Emerson was piqued in part by a provincial bit of reporting by the Los Angeles Daily News on Jan. 28, 11 days after the earthquake. "First Lady in L.A., Skips Valley," declared the banner headline. The implication, of course, is that the San Fernando Valley had been snubbed.

The emphasis on the movements of Hillary Rodham Clinton seemed strange, given the fact that the quake already had prompted Valley visits from the President and several Cabinet members, and that the First Lady's visit had been scheduled long in advance--to appear as guest of honor at an AIDS fund-raiser. Quake duties had simply been squeezed into her schedule. Yet for the sin of tending to Hollywood and the Southside, but not the Valley, the Daily News put Hillary in a pillory.

It also seemed strange, because my impression was that Bill Clinton, as both a candidate and as President, has cultivated the Valley. Long before the quake, this voter-rich region had served as Clinton's stage to discuss such issues as aerospace cutbacks and job retraining. Such decisions are not made by throwing darts at a map.

Emerson confirmed the obvious. He is careful to emphasize that "the President has a special interest in California in general." But, he says, the White House "absolutely" sees the Valley as a distinctly valuable political entity.

"When people from Washington come to California, the Valley is often overlooked," Emerson explains. "They go to the Westside for fund-raising and South-Central or the Eastside for ethnic politics."

But, as Emerson points out, the Valley is home to a lot of middle-class voters--"working families, small businesses, entrepreneurs." What's more, these are voters who already experienced an "economic earthquake" from factory closures, aerospace cuts and depressed real estate. And they are voters who don't routinely toe the party line. "In purely political terms," he says, "the San Fernando Valley is the swing region of Los Angeles."

All of this, plus the area's increasing ethnic diversity, prompts Emerson to describe the Valley as "California in a microcosm."

Now, not even a Valley columnist would suggest that, ipso facto, the key to winning California's 54 electoral votes--and perhaps the White House!--is the San Fernando Valley. But it wouldn't hurt. And it doesn't hurt President Clinton that most of that $10.3 billion is balm for the Valley's aches and pains.

To be crassly political, there are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that God is a Democrat. The other is that Clinton got lucky.

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Emerson responds to the cynical question with mild-mannered aplomb. The billions in federal aid, he emphasizes, should be viewed "only in the nature of a silver lining to a very bad thing."

The President's man is secure in knowing that, despite some complaints concerning quake aid, the reviews are mostly positive. Rep. Howard (Buck) McKeon of Santa Clarita, for example, may be a Republican, but he is effusive in praising government response to a quake that caused much of its damage in his district. Emerson says his boss deserves credit for taking a personal interest in quake recovery. President Clinton could empathize with California's disaster victims, he says, because he had so much experience dealing with floods and tornadoes as governor of Arkansas.

"He saw what the federal government can do to help," Emerson says. "And he saw what the federal government can do to screw up."

So will the earthquake help Clinton win California?

"My response to that is that nobody gets elected or reelected because they do well in a disaster," Emerson says. But if government doesn't respond well, he adds, "someone can sure be thrown out of office."

So the Clinton Administration wants everyone to know that it's on the job. That's why the press was invited when the Small Business Administration in April issued an $9.1-million loan to quake-damaged Devon Industries Inc. of Chatsworth, the largest disaster loan in U.S. history.

And it's no accident that the first installment was delivered, in person, by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Scott Harris' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

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