Undercurrents: Mayoral Race, Perata Case May Explain Political Maneuvering

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday July 24, 2008 - 10:03:00 AM

To understand the political maneuvering currently going on in Oakland, one has to take into account two events. The first is the possible pending federal indictment of State Senator Don Perata. The second is the upcoming 2010 Oakland mayoral election. These two elements certainly don’t fully explain everything, but leaving them out of your equations will leave you hopelessly confused. 

Of course, the epic battle—involving two of the three most powerful and savvy East Bay politicians of the past several decades—would have Mayor Ron Dellums being challenged by Mr. Perata for re-election to a mayoral second term. (The third most powerful and savvy East Bay politician, if you haven’t already guessed, is California Attorney General Jerry Brown.) 

But a Dellums vs. Perata campaign, as compelling political theater as it would be, is certainly not a certainty. 

For one thing, Mr. Dellums has not yet revealed whether he intends to run for a second four-year term. This is not just the absence of a formal announcement—which would obviously be premature at this stage—but also the absence of a signal to many of his close political allies and associates, one way or the other, of his future political plans. If Mr. Dellums knows at this point what he’s going to do, he’s not yet ready to tell. 

For his part, Mr. Perata has given off signals over the past several years that one of his goals is to run for mayor of Oakland, and 2010 would be the logical year for such a run, with Mr. Perata term-limited out of the California State Senate at the end of this year, Barbara Lee holding a virtual lock on the 9th congressional district seat, and no practical prospects of moving into any of the more coveted statewide electoral positions. 

A possible federal criminal indictment, however, would certainly put up a detour on Mr. Perata’s road to the Oakland mayor’s office, so let’s examine that for a second. 

For several years, federal investigators and a federal grand jury have been looking into allegations of corruption and kickbacks surrounding Mr. Perata’s state Senate office, resulting in federal law enforcement interviews of several East Bay officials, as well as search warrants instituted against Mr. Perata, members of his family, and some of his business and political associates. Reporter Robert Gammon of the East Bay Express, who has followed this story closely, has written that inside sources believe indictments in the investigation are imminent. That has led to a round of widespread speculation in the media about the possibility of the indictments, as well as a growing opinion in Oakland that the indictments will soon happen. 

There are several possible scenarios on how this could play out. 

If Mr. Gammon’s sources are wrong, and indictments do not immediately come in the federal Perata investigation, and the grand jury inquiry itself either comes to a deliberate end or gradually peters out, the entire affair might serve to Mr. Perata’s political advantage. He would be able to declare that his business and political affairs have been looked into closely by federal authorities, who could find no case for wrongdoing. 

The same would be true if Mr. Perata were indicted, but the indictments were quickly—by early 2009—thrown out by a federal judge. 

In either of these cases, a potential Perata run for Oakland mayor in 2010 would be little affected. Several media outlets would continue to run stories about allegations of Perata corruption, but local media outlets have been running stories of allegations of Perata corruption for years, with little demonstrable effect on the senator’s local political standing. 

What would kill Mr. Perata’s chances to run in the 2010 mayoral election would be a trial following a grand jury indictment. Any such criminal case and trial would probably be a complicated affair, taking up most of 2009, at best (from Mr. Perata’s point of view), and beyond, at worst. Even if he were acquitted, the acquittal would almost certainly come too late for Mr. Perata to run a winnable race for mayor in 2010. Under those circumstances, he almost certainly wouldn’t run at all. 

All of the above doesn’t completely knock out a Dellums vs. Perata mayoral race two years from now, but it certainly puts such a race in the “less likely” category. 

The possibility of an upcoming Perata public corruption trial may—and I stress the word may—be one explanation for the sudden Oakland City Hall interest in ethics investigations and legislation, something that does not seem to be fully explained by the Deborah Edgerly affair. Ms. Edgerly, you may remember, came under fire last month after an incident in which she briefly intervened while Oakland police were towing an automobile driven by her nephew. After it was learned that the nephew was one of the persons arrested 10 days later in the “Operation Nutcracker” busts of several individuals police identified as the “Acorn gang,” allegations began surfacing in the media that Ms. Edgerly may have “interfered” in a police investigation. Ms. Edgerly was initially allowed by Mayor Ron Dellums to announce her pending retirement, then suspended by the mayor, then fired after she reportedly refused to go along with a deal to limit her oversight of the police department during the last month of her tenure. 

Ms. Edgerly’s firing might have ended the affair—other than the reported law enforcement investigation into her involvement with her nephew’s arrest, an investigation which has been widely reported but never yet confirmed by any law enforcement agency. But the incident immediately aroused cries among some city officials about charges of nepotism (the preferential hiring of relatives) against Ms. Edgerly, and a coalition of City Hall officials—including Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, Councilmember Pat Kernighan, City Attorney John Russo, and City Auditor Courtney Ruby—began a well-publicized campaign to clean up Oakland ethics. 

All of this may be well-intentioned. It may be a political response to the Edgerly affair, which touched a nerve in Oakland. Or it may—and, again, I stress the word “may”—be an attempt by some of the office-holding participants, at least, to be on record as ethics champions when and if a Perata indictment comes down. It wouldn’t surprise me, since I’m never surprised when politicians act like, well, politicians. 

Meanwhile, if a Dellums vs. Perata mayoral race in 2010 has become less likely, who else might run? 

Myself, I wouldn’t count out Mr. De La Fuente, who has already run twice for the position (he came in a distant fourth in 1998, and second in 2006). Normally a double loss for a political office tags a politician with a “loser” label that can’t be shaken, but that may not be the case for Mr. De La Fuente. His losses were to two of the three most powerful East Bay politicians mentioned above (Jerry Brown and Ron Dellums), and in his 2006 loss he came close to throwing the race into a November runoff. His position as council president gives him a powerful platform on City of Oakland affairs, and so Mr. De La Fuente remains a possible mayoral contender in 2010. To contend, of course, he must maintain his council president position—which is not a foregone conclusion if Rebecca Kaplan wins the at-large City Council seat runoff in November—and must stay clear of any backwash from the possible public ethics indictment of Mr. Perata. 

Another possible mayoral candidate is Councilmember Jean Quan. In the runup to the filing for the at-large council seat this spring—being vacated by Councilmember Henry Chang—there was considerable rumor that Ms. Quan was considering running for the citywide council position as a stepping stone to the 2010 mayoral election. Whether the rumors of consideration were true or not—Ms. Quan did not run for Mr. Chang’s seat—it certainly generated a lot of discussion about the possibility of a Mayor Quan in Oakland. Ms. Quan is a relentless campaigner, and if she were able to combine any of the elements of the Perata fundraising and political endorsement machine with the powerful Asian-American fundraising network (most recently utilized by Assemblymember Wilma Chan in her unsuccessful attempt to succeed Mr. Perata in his Senate seat), Ms. Quan would be a serious contender for the mayoral position. 

Meanwhile, with no indication yet from Mr. Dellums of interest in running for re-election in two years, Mr. Dellums’ supporters are already looking around for a possible successor to lead the progressive/multicultural/African-American coalition that Mr. Dellums rode to victory in 2006. 

One possibility is 16th District Assemblymember Sandré Swanson, who was elected to his position in 2006 in a tough campaign against City Attorney John Russo, and then got no opposition in this year’s Democratic primary in running for re-election. Mr. Swanson is one of those rare politicians who has exceeded the expectations of his supporters. During the 2006 campaign, he promised to do something about bringing back local control to the Oakland Unified School District, which was put under state control in 2003. Probably only Mr. Swanson knew that he would keep that promise with such vigor—introducing OUSD local control legislation only moments after his swearing in for his Assembly position—or so successfully (local school leaders give Mr. Swanson full credit for being one of the main reasons why OUSD is now on the road back to local control). Mr. Swanson is currently one of the most popular politicians in Oakland, and would be the odds-on favorite to win the mayoral seat in 2010 if he could be induced to run, and if Mr. Dellums and Mr. Perata were not in the picture. While anything is possible, a Swanson 2010 mayoral campaign seems unlikely at this point. If Mr. Swanson stayed in the state Assembly for his full three terms, he would be on track for a powerful Assembly leadership position—possibly even Assembly speaker—for the 2011–12 session. Hard to see why he would give that up for the more difficult job of Oakland mayor. But, as I said, anything is possible. 

Another possibility—as well as another longshot—as a 2010 successor to the Dellums coalition would be Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson. Mr. Carson once had higher political ambitions—running unsuccessfully in the race that initially put Mr. Perata in his state Senate seat—but has since settled down comfortably in his supervisor seat. It is as much a safe seat for Mr. Carson as any political office can be, and, on the county board, he makes decisions on some of the most important social issues of our time, including health care and incarceration. My guess is, it would take a lot to get him to run for mayor. 

Finally, there was an interesting Oakland political development last week. In the mail came an impressive Larry Tramutola-produced four-color campaign brochure, put out by the John Russo for Oakland City Attorney campaign, featuring the city attorney’s Neighborhood Law Corps and two campaign-style photos of Mr. Russo. What made it more interesting is that Mr. Russo was unopposed for re-election for the Oakland city attorney’s seat and, um, the election was held last month. Folks close to Mr. Russo insist he has no designs on the Oakland mayoral race in 2010. But there’s no such thing as a campaign brochure in a vacuum. It needs a campaign, for something. As I said, interesting.