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In Memoriam: Joseph R. Cerrell, 75

Pamela Johnsonby Pamela J. Johnson
In Memoriam: Joseph R. Cerrell, 75
Photo: Joseph R. Cerrell in a private conversation with President John F. Kennedy, whom Cerrell helped to get elected in 1961

USC College alumnus and political consultant Joseph R. Cerrell, who played a vital role in the presidential campaigns of Democratic candidates including John F. Kennedy, has died. He was 75.

Cerrell died early Dec. 3 in Camarillo following complications from pneumonia.

Earning his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1957, Cerrell later served as an adjunct professor for 15 years with USC College’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, which he co-founded.

“Because of Joe, thousands of students in USC College got a real education in politics ¬- not just high-quality academic research but tangible, real-world lessons,” USC College Dean Howard Gillman said. “His eagerness to share his expertise with generations of new students was a great gift to them and to USC.”

Cerrell was a past member of the Board of Governors of the USC Alumni Association and lectured across the nation.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute, called Cerrell “a true giant in California politics, government and public service.”

“But more than that, Joe had the heart of a lion,” said Schnur, chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission. “His honesty and integrity are enduring reminders of politics as it ought to be. Since the beginning of my career in California politics, Joe has been a friend and a colleague. He will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live on in our students.”

During a career spanning more than a half century, Cerrell also played a key role in the presidential campaigns of 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 its political campaign management and public relations services to corporate and nonprofit clients.

Born Joseph Cerrella in Queens, N.Y., June 19, 1935, he was the son of Sal, a New York City fireman, and Marion, a campaign worker who later would work for Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh in Sacramento. He and his family arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s and Cerrell graduated from Los Angeles High School. At USC, Cerrell founded the Trojan Democratic Club, which caught the eye of Jesse M. Unruh, who hired him to work in his State Assembly campaign. Cerrell later worked for Attorney General Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, when Brown ran for his first term as California governor in 1958.

After Brown won, Unruh, who had become Speaker of the California Assembly, hired Cerrell to run the California Democratic Party. At 24, Cerrell became the state party’s youngest executive director. Cerrell was California’s campaign manager during Kennedy’s presidential bid, and interviews with Cerrell are part of the Oral History Project at the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

In 1966, Cerrell founded Cerrell Associates. Early clients included Pacific Southwest Airlines and Pacific Telephone, as well as countless political candidates.

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

Throughout the years, Cerrell and his firm have advised high-profile dignitaries on their visits to Southern California, including the 2000 visit of 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 visit earned Cerrell Associates a Prism Award for best special event from the Public Relations Society of America-Los Angeles.

In 2001, Cerrell was singled out by the society for a Prism Award as outstanding P.R. professional of the year. That 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 public relations firm in the United States and the fourth largest independently owned public relations firm in Los Angeles, according to O’Dwyer’s 2010 Directory of Public Relations Firms.

As a proud Italian-American, he served as president of the Italian-American National Foundation, a position that led to him becoming a Knight of Italy. In 1997, then California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Cerrell to the Italian-American Task Force, an advisory body to the State Assembly on Italian-American concerns and legislation.

His son Joseph Cerrell Jr. graduated from USC College in 1991, majoring in English with an emphasis on 20th-century American literature. He currently is director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Europe office. The senior Cerrell was a resident of Hancock Park for more than 50 years and moved his firm to nearby Larchmont Boulevard in 1980, the year the Public Relations Society of America-Los Angeles presented him with the Joe Roos Distinguished Award for Community Service, recognizing his contributions to Los Angeles.

Cerrell is survived by Lee, his wife of 47 years; children Sharon and Joe Jr.; and seven grandchildren.

Public services are pending.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to USC’s Unruh Institute of Politics for the Joseph R. Cerrell Center Circle Scholarship, which assists low-income students who wish to attend semesters in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

The institute’s address and telephone number are Unruh Institute of Politics, USC, VKC 262, Los Angeles, Calif., 90089-0045 and (213) 740-8964.

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