Charles Manatt, Democratic Chairman in Reagan Era, Dies at 75

Charles Manatt, who as Democratic national chairman worked to hold his party together during the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, has died. He was 75.

He died yesterday, according to a statement from his law firm, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

Manatt, founder of the Los Angeles-based firm, got his start in politics in California, serving as state party chairman. He ran unsuccessfully for chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1972 and 1976. He led the party’s national finance council when, in 1980, he ran a third time for chairman, and won.

Manatt’s four-year term, from 1981 to 1985, coincided with Reagan’s triumphant first term. In 1984, Reagan won a second term in a landslide, trouncing Democratic nominee Walter Mondale with 59 percent of the popular vote and 98 percent of the electoral vote.

Manatt put on the happiest face he could. “I’m not depressed, because I never get depressed,” he said on election night. “We’ve gained in the Senate, kept our majority in the House and will never, ever have to face Ronald Reagan again.”

Manatt was credited with bringing the national party into the computer age, particularly in using technology to organize campaign fund-raising, United Press International reported in 1984. Earlier, in California, he had used computers to help target precincts that were important in elections.

Party Discord

He almost was a direct victim of the party’s internal discord.

As Democrats were assembling in San Francisco to nominate Mondale for president and Geraldine Ferraro -- the first woman on a major-party ticket -- as his running mate, Mondale moved to oust Manatt and elevate Bert Lance, leader of the Georgia Democratic party and formerly the budget director under President Jimmy Carter.

Party leaders rushed to Manatt’s defense. Less than two days after firing Manatt, Mondale reinstated him.

Mondale’s attempt to unseat Manatt “offended everyone, including the southerners it was supposed to please, and left even loyalists wondering who was calling the shots,” David Broder of the Washington Post wrote in a post-election analysis.

Born in Chicago

Charles Taylor Manatt was born on June 9, 1936, in Chicago and grew up in Audubon, Iowa, where, according to a 1981 profile in the New York Times, he swilled Hereford hogs on his father’s 320-acre farm and was an Eagle Scout and president of Iowa Future Farmers of America.

He graduated from Iowa State University in 1958 and earned his law degree at George Washington University in Washington in 1962. While in Washington, he worked for the Democratic National Committee. He moved to Los Angeles, where, in addition to co-founding his law firm in 1965, he became chairman of First Los Angeles Bank. He was chairman from 1973 to 1989.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton named Manatt U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, a post he held until the end of Clinton’s presidency in 2001.

He had three children with his wife, Kathleen.

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