Chan Bucks Perata in State Senate Race

Friday May 23, 2003

Along with his label of being the Teflon Don (that is, a politician who manages to get out of public view on an issue just before things fall apart and folks start looking around for a politician to blame), California state Sen. Don Perata also has a reputation for eating his young (that is, gathering an impressive group of young and loyal up-and-coming politicians around him, getting their hopes up about his support for their political futures, and then turning and rolling over them like a tank if their political futures happen to get in the way of his).  

Too complicated a sentence to start off a column? I'll wait while you read it again ... 

Anyhow, if all of the above is true, then it might be that the senator has suddenly run into a child who does not intend to be digested so easily.  

Back in 1998, word on the street and unsubstantiated rumor has it that Perata (then the District 16 state assemblymember) promised his support for Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson if Carson ran to fill out the remaining term of Barbara Lee’s District 9 state Senate seat. That was the year Barbara Lee left the Senate to fill Ron Dellums’ unexpired term in the U.S. Congress. Carson entered the District 9 race along with Berkeley state Assemblymember Dion Aroner, at which point Perata announced that the state Senate seat was looking sort of good to him, and he was going to run for Lee’s old seat as well.  

One analysis of that race is that Carson (who is African-American) pulled just enough African-American votes away from Aroner to allow Perata to win the Senate race in the fall of 1998. Any speculation that Perata lured Carson into the race with promises of support while Perata was really intending to run for the seat all along is, well, only speculation. 

Green Party member Audie Bock beat out Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris for Perata’s District 16 state Assembly unexpired seat in 1999 and then, a year later, then-Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan beat Bock for the full term for that same seat.  

I know that’s a lot of political history to take in at one gulp, but take a breath, and we’ll muddle on.  

Now Perata would probably be happy to stay in the California state Senate for as long as the voters would keep on re-electing him. I haven’t asked him about this, but that’s my guess. Perata can’t stay in the Senate indefinitely, though, because of California’s term limit law, which says a state Senator can only stay in a seat for two terms. So Perata starts shopping around for something else to do when his two terms are up. He moved from Alameda to Oakland, and everybody (or most everybody, anyhow) thought this was because Perata was interested in running for the mayor of Oakland after Jerry Brown’s tenure was over.  

Meanwhile, Perata and Assemblymember Wilma Chan are giving the appearance of working as a team up in Sacramento, co-sponsoring such legislation as the Oakland school bailout bill and the Oakland sideshow bill. And word on the street has it that Perata promises to give his support to Chan if she runs for Perata’s District 9 state Senate seat in the fall of 2004, when Perata is forced by term limits to vacate it. So Chan makes plans to run for the District 9 seat, along with former Assemblymember Dion Aroner.  

But then Perata crosses everybody (Wilma Chan especially). He goes to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer and asks if there is any chance that he (Perata) can squeeze out another term in the state Senate. And last month, Lockyer issues an opinion that oh, yes, Perata can indeed serve another term because the term limit law reads that term limit limitations “shall not apply to any unexpired term to which a person is elected or appointed if the remainder of the term is less than half of the full term,” and in Lockyer's opinion, Perata took over Lee’s seat with less than half of her full term remaining. Lockyer conceded that “there are those who will disagree with my interpretation of the law, and it is safe to assume that a court ultimately will decide the issue.”  

Not waiting for the court, Perata was off and running for the Senate again in 2004, and if this sounds like a reprise of his alleged strategy in the 1998 race (with Chan and Aroner knocking each other off while Perata slips in), let’s just say — to paraphrase Gore Vidal — this isn’t so much conspiracy as it is coincidence.  

But Chan and Aroner — both students of history — apparently don’t want to repeat it, either as a tragedy or a farce (that’s from Marx, I think, though we’re not supposed to quote him).  

Deciding that she can only win the District 9 Senate seat if she runs a negative campaign against Chan and Perata, Aroner dropped out of the race. At which point a lot of people assumed that Chan would also drop out of the District 9 race because they don’t think she wants to run against the powerful Perata.  

But this is where we come to the good part, children, where Gretel refuses to climb into the witch’s oven.  

Chan has now gotten a legal opinion from the state Assembly’s legislative counsel which says that Perata can't run for the state Senate again because his first term was a full term. And so Chan is still running for what her staff says is the “open” Senate seat in 2004. So this may be a campaign where both the courts and the voters have to decide.  

More on this one later.