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The Player : Jadine Nielsen made sure Alan Cranston was in the right place at the right time for years. Now she's doing the same for Richard Riordan.

August 02, 1993|S.J. DIAMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jadine Nielsen has power. She has the ear of the mayor of the nation's secondlargest city, she speaks for the mayor, and she certainly has the mayor's confidence. Indeed, Richard Riordan, the new mayor of Los Angeles, likes to say that she can not only turn Los Angeles around, but "she's tough enough to turn the world around."

One of Riordan's five deputy mayors, Nielsen is actually the first among equals, with the most responsibility, the most authority, the highest pay. She's also the first Asian-American to hold such a position and maybe even the first San Franciscan.

For all that, she's relatively unknown. She has always worked for someone else's glory, usually behind the scenes. In spite of two decades in politics, she has so little ego that she thinks an ability to "focus" is her greatest gift. And when asked about her power, she shrugs and says, "Power is just being at the table at meetings that count, and I'm at the table."

She has sat at such tables before--as former U. S. Sen. Alan Cranston's California state director, as Bill Clinton's Northern California campaign manager, then his California scheduling director, as campaign manager for Richard Riordan, the unknown non-politician who became mayor. Jadine Nielsen, says Roy Greenaway, Cranston's national staff director for 24 years, "is probably the best scheduler around."

That's scheduler, as in Nielsen's own credo: "The scheduling moves the message." To those who talk this way--and Riordan's victory should expand their numbers--scheduling is no mere activity involving pen and calendar. It's a professional expertise based on the idea that issues gather strength not just from words but from the time, event, audience and place where they are aired.

Not surprisingly, its practitioners are not philosophers but organizers, not Clintonian policy wonks but agenda pushers. They deal not in visions but in defined goals. And they stay on target.

It's possible that Jadine Nielsen was born that way. Now 44, a small woman who is quiet without being shy or reluctant, she has had a sense of focus since grammar school. "I'm very centered," she says. "I don't lose sight of what the problem is, how to solve it, who's the problem and who's the solution."

She grew up in San Francisco as Jadine Chin--"Jadine" from jade, suggested by a great-aunt who wanted her to be different. Her father, an immigrant from China, was a waiter and a grocer. Her mother was born in Rio Vista, south of Sacramento, but grew up in China. A homemaker when her children were small, she later worked as a seamstress, so rooted in the Chinese community that even today she understands but doesn't speak English.

Nielsen was one of three sisters, all apparently possessing this focus: the other two are office managers. Chris Nielsen, Jadine's husband of 23 years, calls them "generals, with small troops. They're all strong, independent women and are understood as being in charge within their families. Jadine is the oldest--among equals, the most equal of all."

Chris Nielsen--as light and casual as she is cool and deliberate--met Jadine in the choir of San Francisco's First Chinese Baptist Church, which he joined after hearing it sing one day as he walked by. She was 19, he says, "and obviously different. It's a good thing I was five years older. I distinctly remember the maturity and a gift of judgment about things, an instinct for right and wrong. Jay's an instinctive decision-maker."

Oddly enough, she was also "one of those people who don't plan," at least for herself: her life just "evolved." Right out of high school, she took a secretarial job in the San Francisco Unified School District, leaving in 1973 when she heard that Cranston needed a receptionist.

She was with Cranston almost two decades, moving through staff positions from receptionist to director of California operations. There she worked with Greenaway, one of the earliest advocates of what he calls "proactive scheduling," in the mold of Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan's master handler.

Literally, it just means "not reactive," says Greenaway. "We never just accepted an invitation. We always organized everything ourselves because we had specific things we wanted to talk about, specific things we wanted to accomplish. So we'd go out and find the kinds of events we wanted, and the people who could do (them)."

For Nielsen, it was a perfect fit. "She's extremely well-organized," says Greenaway.

More than that, says Maeley Tom, chief of staff to state Sen. David Roberti (D-Van Nuys), and Nielsen's good friend, "she's aware of the ramifications of whatever she schedules. She has outstanding organization skills and very good political instincts for any pitfalls."

Nielsen herself says only, "I'm very focused"--as close as she comes to a boast.

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