Joe Cerrell: One of the Great Good Guys in Politics

Dec7

By Rick Orlov
Special to Calbuzz

In the end, it was one more party thrown by Joe Cerrell for more than 600 of his closest friends.

A memorial service saluting Cerrell, who was the first of the modern political consultants who grew up in an age when politics was fought with “rough elbows..but no rancor,” was held at Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in the Larchmont District near his office and home in Los Angeles.

Cerrell, 75, died last Friday of complications from pneumonia and tributes immediately came in from across the country.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, had a flag that flew over the Capitol sent to the family.

Cerrell was known for his annual Christmas party at the HMS Bounty, across from the Ambassador Hotel — an event that packed in friends, clients, politicians and reporters who had come in contact with Cerrell over the years. Rather than cancel this one last party, the family decided to go ahead with it as a tribute to Cerrell.

Cerrell was remembered for his love and commitment to his family — wife Lee and children Steve Bullock, Joe Jr. and Sharon — as well as to USC, the Catholic Church and the New York Yankees.

A native of New York City, his parents moved to Los Angeles when he was in high school and he enrolled and graduated from Los Angeles High School. From there, he went on to USC, where he would graduate and later return to as a professor. Cerrell was a key player in forming USC’s Unruh Institute of Politics.

He came to politics in 1958, forming a Democratic Club at USC, and coming to the attention of Jesse Unruh, who would go on to become Assembly speaker and name Cerrell executive officer of the California Democratic Party.

With Los Angeles hosting the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Cerrell began work in the campaign for former President John F. Kennedy and forged friendships and alliances with former President Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Hubert Humphrey, among others.

He would work on the gubernatorial campaign of then-Attorney General Pat Brown and, later for his son, Jerry.

As son Steve Bullock recalled, he began forming a network of contacts that would rival anything on Facebook or Twitter.

And, as son Joe Jr., recounted, his father told him to “always remember one thing about a person, so you can ask them about it later.”

Politicians representing the past and present of Los Angeles, California and the United States sent in their remembrances and regrets at not being able to attend the memorial. Assembly Speaker John Perez had the newly sworn-in Assembly adjourn in Cerrell’s honor.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, delayed his travel plans to Sacramento to attend the swearing-in ceremonies, to deliver the first eulogy in honor of Cerrell, calling him a “mentor, an adviser, a friend.” Villaraigosa, like many, recalled his frequent meetings with Cerrell from the days he was an organizer with UTLA.

“We would meet for breakfast at Pacific Dining Car…and I used to drink only hot water and cranberry juice,” Villaraigosa said. “He would say, ‘What is that? You have to eat a real breakfast.’ Today, I had breakfast.”

Most of all, Villaraigosa said, “Joe loved politics. He didn’t care if you were Democratic or Republican. He cared about people.”

Hal Dash, who is now chief executive at Cerrell and worked for him for more than 30 years, said Cerrell would have been pleased with the turnout at the memorial.

“I can picture him turning to (his wife) Lee and telling her to get the guest books to see who was here and who wasn’t,” Dash said.

Robert Meyers, who worked for Newsweek magazine, told a story familiar to many journalists.

He had just begun work for the magazine when he received a call from Cerrell.

“I didn’t know who he was,” Meyers said. “But he said he wanted to introduce himself and that if I needed any help on local, state or national politics, he was there.”

That began a lifelong friendship that spanned more than 40 years.

“He told me once he wanted to open an Italian-Jewish deli,” Meyers recalled. “I asked him if that was to honor his parents, because his mother was Jewish. No, he told me, he wanted to do it just to have a place named Kosher Nostra.”


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