Campaign manager Douglas Jeffe, who died in a tragic accident last week, combined skill, intelligence, compassion and humor in a career that made him respected by friends and foes and placed him in the middle of the most tumultuous years of California politics.
Jeffe apparently drowned April 10 in the Galapagos Islands while on a cruise with his wife, Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, the noted journalist, analyst and longtime USC political scientist. I received details of his death in an email from the Jeffes' friends, actors Ros Ayres and Martin Jarvis of Jarvis & Ayres Productions:
"Sherry told us that it was a tragic accident. A party from the cruise was walking along the beach by the ocean. Douglas walked into the water to around knee level and was suddenly caught by a very strong current. Despite the fact that he was wearing a life jacket, before anyone could get to him he had drowned. That is all the direct information we have." They added, "She is being remarkably brave, but at present it seems she is not answering her phone or responding to emails. Which is understandable."
I've known the Jeffes since early in the 1960s. They were protégés of the late Assembly speaker Jesse M. Unruh. From him they learned the nuts and bolts politics just as the business was moving from printed campaign brochures to computers. I immediately liked Doug because he was funny and a good storyteller. He also understood reporters and what makes a story.
Doug was a practical idealist. I saw that in 2002 when he had been hired by doctors at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center to help with a campaign for a $175 million a year tax increase to save the county's shrinking network of trauma centers. Harbor, serving a working class South Bay clientele, had one of the centers. The doctors, realizing the facts weren't enough to win a tax increase, thought they'd better call Doug.
Jeffe, from his Unruh days, understood health policy but he knew more was needed to sell the tax increase. "People listen but they do not hear," he once said. "Sometimes (consultants) make things more colorful to make a point. There is a tendency to exaggerate a point for emphasis, almost to caricature it."
He didn't need to caricature a bad situation at the trauma centers. He knew, however, the doctors' story needed people, not charts. I had retired from the Times by then but wrote occasional pieces for the Opinion section. He knew I had written about the county hospitals for years. He persuaded me to visit the hospital. I talked to Dr. Gail Anderson Jr., the medical director. "The story is the profound underfunding that has gone on for years, and finally caught up with us," he said. Most important, I spent time in the emergency room, saw all the waiting rooms and the examining rooms filled. Patients were seated on the floor and on gurneys. Waits could last up to eight hours.
Doug did not accompany me, as some media consultants might do. He figured I'd get the story without a minder. I've always thought this piece and others like it played a part in the tax increase's 73 percent victory.
Doug was active in many other good causes. He was president of the board of Los Angeles Theater Works and was on the board of the Venice Family Clinic.
Nancy and I remember him as a good friend. We went out to dinner with him and Sherry, visited them at their Carpenteria beach condo, enjoyed their annual Christmas party and watched the Oscars at their house. The old Unruh people were usually at Oscar night along with new generations of political junkies. No matter the shape of their politics, they shared the opinion of consultant Stu Spencer, who faced Doug in many a campaign. When I told him the news, he emailed a fitting tribute, appreciated by all who understand their rough business: "An honorable opponent."