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Joe Cerrell, political consultant to the likes of John F. Kennedy and Jerry Brown, dies at 75

December 3, 2010 | 11:35 am

Joe Cerrell, a legendary political consultant and consummate schmoozer whose unrelenting but principled style won respect from allies and opponents, died Friday of complications related to pneumonia at St. John's Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo. He was 75.

Cerrell’s list of clients and friendships read like a who’s who of politics from the 1950s forward — John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Al Gore, Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown, Jesse Unruh and both Pat Brown and his son, Gov.-elect Jerry Brown. Instrumental to the careers of numerous politicians, he counted their triumphs among his greatest pleasures and their setbacks among his greatest disappointments.

"Joe Cerrell was a great personal friend and one of the pioneering political consultants in California and the U.S.,” Gore said. “Throughout his life, he was also a great champion of progressive political causes.  He advised presidents, candidates for many offices at the national, state and local level, and used his skills and knowledge to help average Americans through times of triumph and trouble.”

In a recent video tribute to Cerrell,  Jerry Brown said Cerrell “was around before even the term political consultant was invented.” He added: “When I first thought of running for office for the junior college board of Los Angeles at the end of 1968, he was the first person I spoke with.” With Cerrell’s help, recalled Brown, he finished "first among 124 candidates" for the community college board.
In the late 1950s, Cerrell became the head of the California Democratic Party,  while in his mid-20s. In the mid-1960s he started Cerrell Associates, which became one of the nation’s leading public-relations firms and remains a powerful lobbying presence in Los Angeles City Hall.

Cerrell also devoted his skills to civic causes, serving as head of the Coliseum Commission and spearheading the effort complete the IMAX Theater at the Science Center. His efforts on behalf of Italian-American organizations put him on a first-name basis with the leaders of Italy and, under the right circumstances with the right people, gave him the pull to arrange a few audiences with the pope, associates said.

In the no-holds-barred world of political consulting, Cerrell managed to be successful and loyally Democratic without creating enemies, even among his Republican adversaries, some of whom became lifelong friends.

“I learned from Joe the importance of your word,” said Howard Sunkin, senior vice president of public affairs for the Dodgers. Sunkin was first a student in classes Cerrell taught at USC, then an employee. “Joe taught us that you’ve got to be credible and honest to succeed in politics. That’s how Joe taught all of us, and that’s why he was so different from everybody else.”

-- Howard Blume

 (Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Cerrell died Thursday.)