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Joseph R. Cerrell: A Life to Remember

During his storied career spanning more than five decades, Joseph R. Cerrell played key roles in the presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert H. Humphrey, Lloyd Bentsen, John Glenn and Al Gore. As the founder of Los Angeles-based Cerrell Associates Inc., he built a public affairs firm known for not only expert political campaign management, but also for its public relations and public affairs services to corporate and nonprofit clients.

Cerrell’s political career began in the 1950s at the University of Southern California (USC), where he started the Trojan Democratic Club on a campus known at the time for its Republican activism. His political savvy soon caught the eye of Jesse M. Unruh, leading to a position on his State Assembly campaign and later on the staff of Attorney General Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, running for his first term as California Governor in 1958.

After Brown won, Cerrell was approached again by Unruh, who had become Speaker of the California Assembly, to run the California Democratic Party. At just 24, Cerrell was the youngest person ever to do so. That experience led Cerrell to the Kennedy presidential campaign, where he became California campaign manager, directing all operations in the Golden State. Interviews with Cerrell are part of the Oral History Project at the Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston.

It was on the Brown campaign where Cerrell met the striking blonde campaign worker Lee Bullock, who would become his wife in 1963. At the time, the Cerrells postponed their ceremony by a week at the request Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, so they could oversee a Los Angeles event for President Kennedy.

Joe and Lee Cerrell celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary on Nov. 17.

“Joe Cerrell helped to create modern political consulting,” said Professor Ann N. Crigler, chair of the Department of Political Science at USC. “He was an early full-service political consultant who successfully navigated the transition to today’s more specialized consulting practices. He shared his expertise and enthusiasm with hundreds of students over the years and inspired them to get involved in politics at many levels. This gift was institutionalized with his instrumental role in bringing the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics to USC.”

In 1966, Cerrell formed Golden State Consulting with colleagues Don Simonian and Chuck Winner. While their venture was short-lived, the trio would go on to achieve individual successes in political consulting. In 1967, Joe and Lee founded Cerrell Associates. Early clients included Pacific Southwest Airlines and Pacific Telephone, as well as countless political candidates.

Together with political consultant Ben Palumbo, Cerrell opened Palumbo & Cerrell in Washington, DC in 1983 giving him an East Coast branch and the ability to serve clients in the nation’s capital.

Over the years, Cerrell and his firm advised high-profile dignitaries on their visits to Southern California, including the 2000 visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and two local tours for Armenian Pontiffs—the 1987 visit of His Holiness Catholicos Vazken I and the 1996 visit of His Holiness Catholicos Karekin I—the latter earning Cerrell Associates a PRism Award for Best Special Event from the Public Relations Society of America-Los Angeles (PRSA-LA).

In 2001, Cerrell was singled out by PRSA-LA for a PRism Award as “Outstanding PR Professional.” That same year, the Los Angeles Business Journal named Cerrell’s firm “Small Family-Owned Business of the Year.”

Today, Cerrell Associates is the 43rd-largest independently owned PR firm in the United States and the 4th-largest independently owned PR firm in Los Angeles, according to O’Dwyer’s 2010 Directory of Public Relations Firms. Additionally, it is a member firm of the Worldcom Public Relations Group, the world’s largest consortium of independently owned public relations counseling firms.

In recent years, Cerrell was perhaps best known as “the judge maker” for his successful record in running campaigns for hundreds of California judges. In reporting this success rate, the Los Angeles legal newspaper the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, which awarded Cerrell its “Person of the Year Award” in 2007, wrote that same year: “Cerrell’s reputation among, and rapport with, the bench officers was such that several municipal court judges who hired him to help them move up to the Superior Court found themselves unopposed.”

In 2006, Cerrell led a restructuring effort that transferred majority ownership of Cerrell Associates into the hands of its seven senior principals. He took on the title Chairman Emeritus, but remained current with the firm’s business and continued to track local, state and national politics.

Born Joseph Cerrella in Queens on June 19, 1935—the son of Sal, a New York City fireman, and Marion, a campaign worker who would later work for Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh in Sacramento—Cerrell reveled in his New York roots. He often insisted that Frank Sinatra’s hit “New York, New York” be played at family and company events. He passionately followed his beloved Yankees and was in the stands at both Dodger and Yankee stadiums during the 1977 and 1978 World Series.

In 1941, Cerrell’s parents dropped the “a” off Cerrella so their son could escape anti-Italian discrimination during World War II. Later in life, he started to actively research his family’s ancestry and in 1987 made what family members called a life-changing journey to Calabria, Italy to find and meet long-lost relatives. In his lifetime, he made more than two dozen trips to Italy, often combining work with pleasure. He became extremely proud of his Italian-American heritage, energetically promoting the contributions of Italian-Americans in Los Angeles and around the world. He served as vice-chair and president of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF); vice-chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations, and was appointed to the California Italian-American Task Force by Gov. Pete Wilson.

Additionally, he was chairman of the board of the Italy America Chamber of Commerce West and served as regional vice president of the American Society of the Italian Legions of Merit. He was also a member of the Sons of Italy, UNICO, and the Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California. On his relentless quest to raise funds for these organizations, Cerrell once said, “I don’t miss an opportunity. If I spot someone with a vowel at the end of their name, I try to get some money or a meeting.”

In 2002, he received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and, in 2007, the Italian-American Lawyers Association named Cerrell to its Hall of Fame. The Italian government bestowed several awards on Cerrell, including its highest honor, the “Commendatore al Merito Della Republica Italiana” (Knight Commander) decoration.

Cerrell was a proud alumnus of both Los Angeles High School and USC, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1957. He would return to his alma mater in 1979 to become one of USC’s most popular adjunct professors, teaching for 15 years in conjunction with the university’s prestigious Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, which he co-founded with longtime friend and fellow Unruh aide, Larry L Berg.

More recently, he was a Distinguished Visiting Professor in Political Science at Pepperdine University in Malibu from 1996 to 2004. Over the decades, many of Cerrell’s students interned at Cerrell Associates, with several coming to work for him full-time—a track record that was a source of pride.

In addition to teaching, Cerrell worked with political science professors from local universities to establish the Annual Sacramento Seminar, which has since brought thousands of college students to the state capital. He was also a passionate fan of USC football and for decades rarely missed a home game.

Cerrell served on the boards of the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) and the International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC). In 2004, Cerrell received a Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to campaign consulting from American University’s Campaign Management Institute and, in 2007, the AAPC inducted Cerrell into its Hall of Fame, calling him a “pioneer and an innovator in our industry.” The AAPC honor is recognized as the highest honor that working members of the profession can bestow upon a colleague.

A sought-after lecturer and political pundit, Cerrell was well known for his appearances on numerous news and public affairs programs, where he was recognized as a political legend, considering his half-century of work in, and observation of, the local, state and national political scenes. National and local journalists knew Cerrell offered insightful political commentary and a unique perspective on California and US politics. Cerrell was frequently quoted in newspapers and magazines, particularly during election cycles.

Cerrell was a product of a different age of politics, with less divisiveness and more mutual respect. He knew and was admired by people across the political spectrum. Once, at a moment’s notice, he and Republican Lyn Nofziger conducted a master class on elections at the National Press Foundation in Washington.

Despite his New York upbringing, Cerrell loved Los Angeles, where he married, raised his family, ran his successful business, and built an unparalleled reputation for giving back to the community. A resident of Hancock Park for more than 50 years, Cerrell was proud to relocate his firm to nearby Larchmont Boulevard in 1980. That same year, PRSA-LA presented him with the Joe Roos Distinguished Award for Community Service, recognizing his contributions to the city.

Cerrell was particularly proud of his work with the California Museum of Science and Industry (now the California Science Center), where he was responsible for getting the IMAX theatre built in time for the 1984 Olympic Games. He also worked with attorney and real estate magnate Donald T. Sterling to help bring the Clippers to Los Angeles in 1984 and was also part of the team that brought the Oakland Raiders to the Coliseum.

A former president of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission, Cerrell later helped organize the rededication of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum after renovations to repair damage from the Northridge earthquake. The effort earned Cerrell a 1995 PRo Award from the Publicity Club of Los Angeles.

In 2008, the Central City Association named Cerrell a “Treasure of Los Angeles” for his many decades of service to the city. An example of this service was Cerrell’s longtime leadership and volunteerism with Wilshire YMCA (now the Hollywood-Wilshire YMCA), where he, along with Los Angeles City Council President John Ferraro, helped institute its annual Booster’s Dinner, establishing it as one of the YMCA’s largest single fundraising events in the United States.

A well-known “foodie,” Cerrell loved frequenting Los Angeles’ best restaurants—especially Melrose Avenue’s Marino Ristorante, where he dined regularly for more than 25 years. An avid user of local restaurant guides, Cerrell was an attributed contributor to “Paul Wallach’s Guide to the Restaurants of Los Angeles.” His love of fine food even inspired a short-lived stint as a restaurateur, when he bought a continental brasserie called La Place, in Century City in 1975. He sold it four years later. He was also an investor in the El Cholo restaurants in Los Angeles and Santa Monica.