Undercurrents: How Public Opinion Gets Swayed in an Election

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday August 27, 2009 - 12:58:00 PM

If you’re interested in a textbook example of how public opinion gets swayed and massaged in a political campaign, you don’t have to go any further than the opening item in Sunday’s (Phil) Matier & (Andy) Ross column in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Perata Had Hand In Oakland’s Police Chief Pick”). 

As you may remember, except for complaints from Dellums supporters who wanted Ron Davis of East Palo Alto for the job, Mr. Dellums won widespread praise for his recent selection of Long Beach Police Chief Anthony Batts as Oakland’s new chief. As I wrote last week, even longtime Dellums critic Bob Gammon of the East Bay Express wrote about how, with the Batts pick, Mr. Dellums “had his mojo back.” 

At least according to Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross, however, it was former state Sen. Don Perata, not Mr. Dellums, who was the key player in the Batts selection, easing his way with the powerful Oakland Police Officers Association (OPOA) police union. 

“When word arrived in Long Beach that Batts was one of the finalists,” Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross wrote, “a former city councilman down there suggested he might want to pitch a call to the ex-state Senate leader—seeing as how there’s a good chance Perata will be Oakland’s next mayor. The two talked, and Perata called Oakland Police Officers Association leaders and suggested they check Batts out. They did, and came back with two thumbs up.” 

The beauty of this item—from the standpoint of Mr. Matier, Mr. Ross, and Mr. Perata—is that it is difficult, if not, impossible to either prove or disprove the first part of the narrative. 

Since no name is given by the Chronicle columnists, for example, for the “former city councilmember” from Long Beach to verify the story that they supposedly initiated the Batts-Perata contact, how would you verify that story with the councilmember? You might try to verify that part of the story with Mr. Batts himself, but given that any answer he gives would either tarnish the reputation of Mr. Dellums—under whom he must work for the next year and a half—or of Mr. Perata—whom he might have to work under after the next mayoral election—Mr. Batts is most likely to make no comment at all. Since he doesn’t have to comment on the story, why should he get in the middle of that mess?  

It is, of course, possible that the second parts of the Matier & Ross item is factually correct, and that Mr. Perata met with Mr. Batts and thereafter contacted OPOA and suggested they check Mr. Batts out, and that sometime afterwards, OPOA gave the Long Beach Police Chief their endorsement. But to believe that it was the Perata contact with OPOA that caused OPOA to “check Batts out,” you have to believe that it never occurred to the folks at the police union to vet the finalists for the Chief of the Oakland Police Department until Mr. Perata called them up and suggested it. That strains belief. It is far more likely—in fact, almost certain—that OPOA—which, after all, is made up of a profession of people that “check people out” for a living—sounded out and rated all of the OPD chief finalists without any prompting. 

Why, then, the need for Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross to put Mr. Perata’s name in the mix? 

Two reasons come to mind. 

First, it is a virtual death knell for a politician to be too long out of the public eye in the runup to a run for public office. That was the fate of Perata protégé Wilma Chan in 2008 when she ran for Mr. Perata’s old Oakland-Berkeley Senate seat in the June Democratic primary against Loni Hancock. Ms. Hancock was then the incumbent Assemblymember from Berkeley, with the ability to get her name and face in the news whenever she wanted. Ms. Chan, on the other hand, was termed out of her Oakland Assembly seat in 2006. She was something of a superstar during her three-term assembly run, gaining a reputation as a prolific bill-writer and passer, rising to the position of Majority Leader and generally generating positive press in those years. But Ms. Chan pretty much dropped out of sight after her run in the Assembly ended, and in the two years between 2006 and 2008 scrambled around to generate publicity any way she could. At one point, she even joined, for a time, Peralta College District’s ill-fated Measure A Oversight Committee, presumably as a way to keep herself in the public eye. While Ms. Hancock may have beaten Ms. Chan for the Senate seat even if Ms. Chan had still been in the Assembly, it is certain that Ms. Chan’s absence from the media contributed to the large margin of her defeat. 

Mr. Perata is well aware of the out-of-sight-out-of-mind syndrome, and the need to find ways to get himself on television and in the papers from time to time until the Oakland mayoral race swings into full gear at the beginning of next year. The Matier & Ross item mentioning the former state Senator has all the earmarks of that type of effort. 

The second reason that may be behind the Chronicle column is the thinness of Mr. Perata’s resumé when it comes to his past record of delivering benefits to the city of which he wants to be mayor. 

Mr. Perata is best known—fairly or unfairly—for lining the pockets of himself, his family, his political allies, and his major political supporters in the many years he represented Oakland, first on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, then in the California State Assembly, and finally in the California State Senate. But even his strongest supporters have to stretch when it comes to things Mr. Perata did for Oakland itself, and its citizens. 

Last April Chronicle East Bay columnist Chip Johnson, who later did an on-paper happy-dance while declaring that there was “nothing standing between former state Sen. Don Perata and the Oakland mayor’s office but time, opportunity and blue skies,” gave his assessment of Mr. Perata’s mayoral qualifications in an April 24, 2009 column (“Bobb, Perata would each make good Oakland mayor,” April 24). 

“Perata’s strength [is] as a hometown guy whose political career is based on the support he’s received from residents in Oakland and across the East Bay,” Mr. Johnson wrote. “[T]he 63-year-old, is a legendary campaigner, a committed door-to-door canvasser and one of the best fundraisers in the entire state.”  

Mr. Johnson then quoted longtime Oakland political consultant Larry Tramutola on Mr. Perata’s qualifications. 

“He can make things happen in the city of Oakland and he’s got a reputation as a guy who gets things done,” Mr. Johnson quoted Mr. Tramutola as saying. “For Perata, it’s all about Oakland, everything he’s done (as an elected official) has been done to make life better in Oakland. He loves this city, and he believes in it.” 

This was the point where it would have been appropriate for either Mr. Johnson or Mr. Tramutola to list exactly what Mr. Perata has actually done “to make life better in Oakland,” but they passed on the opportunity. 

Mr. Johnson did the same in his “blue skies” column on Mr. Perata (“With Probe Over, Perata Primed To Lead Oakland,” May 29), writing of the former state Senator’s qualifications that “Perata was elected to the state Legislature in 1996 and served as Senate leader from 2004 to 2008, when term limits forced him to retire. In Sacramento he proved a tough, effective lawmaker and a prodigious political fund-raiser, and for a time he was the most powerful Democrat in California.” Again, words like “tough” and “effective,” but effective at what, and what exactly did Mr. Perata do for Oakland? Again, on this, Mr. Johnson was silent. 

But perhaps what is most interesting is what Mr. Perata himself has to say about his own accomplishments during his years representing Oakland in various governmental bodies. 

In his March 31 column in which he wrote of Mr. Perata’s announcement to run for mayor of Oakland (“Dellums Presence As Risky As His Performance”), Mr. Johnson quoted Mr. Perata as saying, in support of his mayoral run, that “People know what I’ve done to ban assault weapons and other things I’ve done…” 

Two things stand out in Mr. Perata’s comment. The first is that, while Mr. Perata’s SB23 assault weapons bill did some good things, he has always overpromoted it as “banning” assault weapons. Assault weapons were already banned in California prior to Mr. Perata’s bill (from the Senate Analysis of SB23 “Existing law, the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, generally prohibits the sale, manufacture, distribution, transport, import, possession, or lending of assault weapons in California. Violations of the Act are generally a felony; possession is punishable as a misdemeanor/felony (with an ‘exception’ punishable as an infraction”). What Mr. Perata’s SB23 did was good work—but not the groundbreaking work he touts—in clarifying the definitions of those weapons, and enhancing penalties. 

But second, while those clarifications and sentence enhancements in Mr. Perata’s SB23 were good, they did not end—and perhaps did not even slow down—the use of assault weapons in California, and especially in Oakland. The use of such weapons still abound in Oakland, with the sound of automatic weapons firing echoing through too many of the city’s streets on too many nights, and too many bodies falling as a result. 

This has all the earmarks of a politician making a big splash on a high-publicity issue, but not staying around to do the dirty work to make sure the task is completed. That seems to be the hallmark of Mr. Perata’s career in public service. (There was that Oakland gun buyback thing the Senator sponsored back in early 2008, of course, but that got such bad publicity over revelations that it was more benefiting to out-of-city gun dealers who were turning in old weapons for cash, Mr. Perata seems to have dropped that from his list of accomplishments.) 

Thus the need for Mr. Perata to pad his resumé in the runup to the 2010 Oakland mayoral contest, and to shoulder in on another man’s accomplishment, Mr. Dellums’ widely-praised selection of Mr. Batts as Oakland’s new police chief. 

Is that how the Perata-Batts item got posted to the Matier & Ross column? In all fairness, I present no more proof than was presented for the assertions in the Matier & Ross column itself. Me, I’m only speculating.