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Charles T. Manatt, former chairman of Democratic National Committee, dies at 75

Charles T. Manatt, 75, a California lawyer and banker who energetically guided the debt-laden Democratic National Committee to financial prosperity in the early 1980s but wasn’t able to translate that growth into a presidential victory, died July 22 at Kindred Hospital in Richmond.

His daughter, Michele Manatt, said he had complications from a stroke suffered in November 2010.

Mr. Manatt, a Washington resident, climbed through the ranks of the Democratic National Committee and forged relationships with several generations of the party’s most influential leaders. While in law school, he served as executive secretary of the Young Democrats, corralling votes for presidential nominee John F. Kennedy.

A versatile businessman, Mr. Manatt founded First Los Angeles Bank, started an international consulting firm and invested in agricultural enterprises. He spent much of his career in law, forming what became Manatt, Phelps and Phillips in Los Angeles.

As a lawyer, Mr. Manatt’s specialty was banking and finance, but the firm grew to include a flourishing entertainment practice with clients including the Rolling Stones, the media company Time Warner, the film company DreamWorks and the estates of Truman Capote, Groucho Marx and Andy Warhol.

In political circles, Mr. Manatt was best remembered for his stewardship of the DNC from 1981 to 1985.

In the aftermath of the 1980 elections, when Ronald Reagan was overwhelmingly elected to the White House and Republicans swept control of the Senate, few Democrats sought the party chairmanship. Mr. Manatt, who had been DNC finance chairman, openly campaigned for the position.

Claiming he was motivated by the 1980 presidential defeat, Mr. Manatt seized the opportunity to rouse his dispirited party from the ashes. In the elections, Mr. Manatt said, the Democrats had been “outconceptualized, out-organized, out-televised, out-coordinated, out-financed and out-worked.”

At that point, the Democrats faced $2 million in debt, the party’s headquarters was a rented space, and 12 of the 15 electric typewriters in their offices were broken.

“The party was knocked to its knees, knocked to its back after the 1980 elections,” said Terry McAuliffe, who served as DNC chairman from 2001 to 2005. “Chuck stepped up to the plate and helped bring financial stability to the party.”

Under Mr. Manatt’s guidance, the party’s direct-mail contributor list grew from 25,000 to more than 400,000. He helped raise more than $6 million to build a permanent Capitol Hill Democratic headquarters, complete with state-of-the-art computers, and cleared the party’s debt.

As chairman, Mr. Manatt helped shape the Democrats’ strategy to retake the White House in 1984. He called on Democrats to portray themselves as “ordinary working people” in contrast with Reagan supporters “who dress their wives in minks and $10,000 dresses [while] cutting programs for the aged and the children.”

Mr. Manatt organized training sessions across the country to prepare Democrats for future political battles, and catered to Jewish voters by vocally opposing a Reagan deal to sell early-warning radar planes to Saudi Arabia.

He also arranged to bring more power within the committee to labor groups, who in return made significant contributions to the party’s coffers.

Leading up to the election, Mr. Manatt conducted a series of talks with civil rights activist and presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. By supporting Jackson’s bid for the White House, Mr. Manatt was credited with helping to raise awareness about diversity within the party.

Walter Mondale, a former Democratic senator from Minnesota who had been Jimmy Carter's vice president, became the party’s presidential nominee in 1984. But Mondale stumbled when he briefly tried to replace Mr. Manatt with Bert Lance, a Georgia native who also had served in the Carter administration, in part to improve his electoral chances in the South.

Ultimately, party donors rebelled at the effort to oust Mr. Manatt, and Mondale was attacked by opponents as an indecisive leader. Mr. Manatt maintained his chairmanship, but the Mondale campaign lost momentum, political analysts said at the time.

That November, Reagan won a second term in a victory even more overpowering than his first. Reagan carried 49 states to Mondale’s single triumph, in Minnesota.

Charles Taylor Manatt was born June 9, 1936, in Chicago. He grew up on a farm outside Audubon, Iowa, where his daily chores included feeding a passel of Hereford hogs. He was an Eagle Scout and a member of the Future Farmers of America.

He entered Iowa State University in 1954 and three years later married classmate Kathleen Klinkefus. Besides his wife, of Washington, surviv ors include three children, Michele Manatt of McLean, Father Timothy Manatt, a Jesuit priest inMinneapolis, and Daniel Manatt of Bethesda; a brother; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Manatt graduated from college in 1958 and from George Washington University Law School in 1962. From 2001 to 2007, he served as chairman of George Washington University’s board of trustees.

In 1965, Mr. Manatt and an Iowa State classmate, Thomas Phelps, started their law firm in California. What began as a six-man group of savings and loans lawyers swelled to more than 100 lawyers by the early 1980s. Today, there are 350 in offices in New York, California and Washington.

After Mr. Manatt left the Democratic chairmanship, he remained involved with party causes. He was campaign chief for the failed White House candidacies of senators Gary Hart (Colo.) and Paul Simon (Ill.) in the 1988 race.

He was named a chairman of the successful Clinton-Gore presidential election team in 1992. Clinton rewarded Mr. Manatt with the ambassadorship to the Dominican Republic from 1999 to 2001.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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