WASHINGTON — John Emerson has helped win political fights for Gary Hart, Jerry Brown and his current boss, President Clinton. But the victory he wanted so badly for himself, and gave away, tells his story best.
Fifteen candidates were running for a state Assembly seat from the Silver Lake-Echo Park district in 1991, in a punishing contest that gave new meaning to descriptions of Southern California as the Beirut of American politics.
Emerson, then Los Angeles' chief deputy city attorney, claimed an early lead. But after the opposition, in a cannonade of denunciations, painted him a bureaucrat, a pol and a carpetbagger (he had moved half a mile into the district), the lead was seized by Barbara Friedman, the candidate backed by labor and the influential organization of Reps. Howard Berman and Henry Waxman.
Friends and advisers urged Emerson, who hadn't criticized his rivals, to mount a quick counterattack.
"There was no question what this would mean," says Rick Allen, who has been Emerson's best friend for 19 years and is the No. 2 official in the new national service program for young people. "If he did one mailing, he would win."
But Emerson would do no such thing. He thought it would undercut efforts to win points for waging a clean campaign and risk alienating Democratic friends, including those in organized labor.
"My gut told me not to," Emerson says.
He came within 31 votes of victory, entitling him to a recount. But he wouldn't go for that either, reasoning that it might foster bitterness among his competitors.
Emerson's political friends nod knowingly at this story, because it seems to capture his essence. "Emo," as they call him, wants to always preserve his carefully cultivated relationships for another day. To minimize friction. To make sure everybody is heard from, everybody is happy.
All this oiling of the waters makes the 40-year-old lawyer an unusual figure in boisterous California politics, but it has served him well.
Among his other roles as a deputy assistant to the President, Emerson is a sort of untitled ambassador to California, in charge of ensuring that federal services are delivered, that the state's politicians are kept happy and that the White House has laid the groundwork to win 54 electoral votes in 1996. As such, he coordinated the Administration response to the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, a $10.3-billion project that mobilized several dozen federal agencies and most of the Cabinet secretaries.
In California, where Democrats feud among themselves almost as bitterly as with the Republicans, serving as Washington's emissary is no easy assignment.
It requires someone who can walk through a jostling, scuffling, elbow-throwing crowd and emerge with his tie crisply knotted and a smile still on his face. Someone like Emerson.
"Dealing with California is dealing with enormous egos and enormous stakes," says Tony Coelho, a former House Democratic leader and an outside adviser to the White House. "That tells you all you need to know about the confidence the President has in this kid."
Emerson's diplomatic skills also have been in demand this past year in his role as deputy White House personnel chief, a job that, because of ethnic and gender diversity issues, guarantees controversy.
Emerson came to these positions with a surprisingly long political resume. He was Clinton's California campaign manager in 1992; deputy national campaign manager for Gary Hart's 1986-1987 presidential bid; Hart's California chairman in 1984, and general counsel for Jerry Brown's 1982 U.S. Senate bid.
Some believe the key to deconstructing Emerson's personality lies in the fact that his father is a retired Presbyterian minister, his mother a social worker.
"If you're a minister's son, you've always got to stay on your best behavior: You never know when you may run into a member of the congregation," says David Dreyer, a White House aide who worked with Emerson on the Hart campaign.
Mark Lichtman, a Los Angeles political consultant who worked for a different candidate in the 1991 Assembly race, acknowledges that he's still baffled by Emerson's campaign move--and by his unfailingly sunny disposition. "The guy is just, well--terminally nice," he says with a hint of exasperation.
Emerson's upbringing does make his temperament and interests seem more understandable.
His maternal grandfather, John Sutherland Bonnell, and his father, James G. Emerson, were prominent Presbyterian ministers. The Rev. Bonnell was well-known as one of the first to challenge Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.
When Emerson was growing up, primarily in the New York City suburbs of Bloomfield, N.J., and Larchmont, N.Y., he heard regular talk of his family's social and political concerns. He got involved in politics during his college years, taking part in anti-war rallies and walking New York precincts to help Democratic Sen. George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign.