Undercurrents: Working Out the Kinks in the Perata Machine

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:31:00 AM

Whatever else he may accomplish this election season, former State Senator Don Perata appears—so far—to be successfully winning the battle to get the media to adopt his electoral narrative. While no other reporter or columnist has embarrassed themselves by declaring, as the Chronicle’s Chip Johnson once did, that nothing stands between Mr. Perata and the Oakland mayor’s office but “blue skies” (“With Probe Over, Perata Primed To Lead Oakland,” May 29, 2009), there appears a subtle—if sometimes grudging—tone in local reporting that once Mr. Perata’s potential federal corruption problems were behind him, the mayor’s race is his to lose. That, of course, is clearly Mr. Perata’s strategy in next year’s election: to run as if his victory is all but inevitable, and those who do not get with his campaign immediately will be left out. 

But if the assumption that Mr. Perata has a clear path to the mayor’s position is true, then the ham-handedness of the recent Oakland police union’s endorsement of the former State senator is puzzling indeed. 

Late in October, the Neighborhood Services Division of the City of Oakland sent out official notices in the name of the city’s Neighborhood Watch Steering Committee inviting citizens to hear newly appointed Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts speak on November 5 at the headquarters of the Oakland Police Officers Association (OPOA). The gathering was jointly sponsored by the Steering Committee and OPOA. 

Mr. Batts did speak, but after he left, Oakland business and political activist Pamela Drake reported to the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club email list what happened next. 

“As soon as [Mr. Batts] left,” Ms. Drake wrote, “OPOA union President [Dom-inique] Arotzarena started a speech in which he denounced the leadership of our city, talked about the low morale of the department and complained about the extension of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement (Consent Decree based on police misconduct), and how we now have a chance ‘to turn [the city] around.’ Then [Mr. Arotzarena] announced that OPOA would be endorsing Don Perata for mayor and asked [Mr. Perata] to speak ... A number of folks sitting in the back got up and left as soon as Perata was introduced.” 

Aside from being what would appear to be an illegal misuse of city funds for the city’s Neighborhood Services Division to send out postcards inviting citizens to a meeting that turned out, in part, to be a campaign event, the OPOA endorsement incident was embarrassing because Oakland City Councilmember Jean Quan, who has all but announced her intention to run for Oakland’s mayor, was also in the audience. She was belatedly asked to come up and speak after Mr. Perata by the chairperson of the Neighborhood Watch Steering Committee. It also must have been embarrassing to Mr. Batts, whose name has now been twice associated with the man—Mr. Perata—who wants the job currently held by the man who actually hired Mr. Batts (the first time, you remember, was back in August when Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross disclosed that Mr. Batts called Mr. Perata for support when he, Mr. Batts, was a finalist for the Oakland police chief job; interestingly for the current story, Mr. Matier and Mr. Ross wrote last August that, following the reported Batts-Perata conversation, “Perata called Oakland Police Officers Association leaders and suggested [the OPOA] check Batts out. They did and came back with two thumbs up” (“Perata Hand in Oakland’s Police Chief Pick,” August 23, 2009). 

So once again, Mr. Perata and OPOA are drawing Mr. Batts into the middle of the mayoral race where, almost certainly, Mr. Batts himself does not want to be. 

The OPOA Perata endorsement incident had immediate and predictable repercussions. Oakland City Administrator Dan Lindheim announced that he was launching an investigation into the action, telling the Oakland Tribune that “it is a violation of city policy and state law to use city resources or city work time for political purposes. While any group has the right to endorse whomever they choose for political office, the Oakland Police Officers Association decision to co-opt a city-sponsored community event and use it for political purposes raises serious concerns.” We will watch with interest how that city investigation plays out. 

Meanwhile, the ham-fisted handling of the OPOA Perata endorsement leaves a puzzlement not only about how the affair was put together, but about its timing. 

The Oakland mayoral election is six months away at the very least, and a full year away if ranked-choice voting (instant runoff voting, or IRV) is implemented. Campaigns, of course, try to release announcements of endorsement for maximum effect, so one wonders what effect the Perata mayoral campaign was trying to bring about this early in the game, when most voters have not yet focused on the election. And, further, it seems strange to cloud the OPOA Perata endorsement with controversy when the announcement could have been done cleanly, either at a union meeting or at a press conference at OPOA headquarters, with greater publicity benefit for Mr. Perata’s campaign. 

One cannot easily discern the thought and strategy behind the OPOA endorsement announcement, but that may be—may being the operative word—because there is something else in play: financial considerations. 

Mr. Perata has always been known as a prodigious political fund-raiser, particularly during the years he presided over the State Senate, but recent events may have reduced his ability to capitalize on that gift. 

In his 2004 campaign for the Senate, Mr. Perata was working with a $3,200 per individual contribution limit, an amount that allowed him to raise a quarter of a million dollars that year for the “Perata 2004” committee from individuals and organizations all around the state. 

In addition, Mr. Perata used his position as Senate President to set up official fund-raising committees to finance state ballot measures and intervene in other legislative elections around California. His Leadership California committee (now renamed Hope 2010) reported $1.4 million in contributions in 2008, $8.7 million in 2006. The former Senator’s “Friends of Don” legal defense fund, the committee set up to raise money to pay Mr. Perata’s legal fees while fighting off the federal political corruption investigation, raised another $2.2 million in 2008. 

With his term-limit retirement from the State Senate and the loss of his ability to shape state law and contracts, Mr. Perata’s ability to fundraise on a statewide level has plummeted. The same Hope 2010 committee whose predecessor raised $8.7 million in 2006 gathered only $14,000 in contributions in the first nine months of 2009, $13,500 of that from his own Perata 2004 Senate re-election committee. 

In addition, Mr. Perata’s fundraising for the mayoral race is severely hampered by the City of Oakland’s campaign finance limits. Contributions to mayoral candidates are capped at $100 per individual for candidates who plan to spend unlimited funds on their election. The individual contribution limit is $500 if the candidate agrees to a campaign spending limit of roughly $280,000 (70 cents per city resident). The contribution limits are $250 and $1,000 respectively for organizations. 

Of course, even with those restrictions, Mr. Perata has figured out ways to bring in money. In September, for example, the Oakland Tribune reported that the CCPOA (California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the prison guards), which comprises many longtime Perata supporters—sent almost a quarter of a million dollars Mr. Perata’s way in 2009. 

The problem is, none of this money can go directly into Mr. Perata’s Oakland mayoral campaign. 

The Tribune reported that funds controlled by the CCPOA were given in various amounts to Perata Consulting (registered to Mr. Perata’s son, Nick and partially owned by Mr. Perata himself), to the City of Alameda’s Avalon Village senior citizen nonprofit organization (where Mr. Perata serves on the Board of Directors), to Liquid Logistics (a business name registered to Nick Perata) for membership mailers, and for voter focus work by Sandi Polka, a longtime Perata associate (“Don Perata Still Making Bank From Prison Guards’ Union” November 30, 2009). 

While some of this CCPOA money may find its way into the mayoral campaign—through the hiring of Ms. Polka and Nick Perata as campaign workers at bargain rates, for example—it is possible that even with this huge influx of cash for the Peratas themselves and Perata associates, the Perata for Oakland Mayor campaign is suffering from a lack of early money. 

(As an aside, one wonders what the state organization of prison guards hopes to get in return for their financial contributions to the Perata cause. But that’s a subject for another time.) 

Campaign money is especially important for Mr. Perata at this stage of the mayoral campaign—more than it is for all-but-announced candidate Jean Quan and for possible re-election candidate Ron Dellums—because the Perata strategy appears to be to build early momentum that attempts to discourage his competitors and builds an aura of Perata inevitability. To run that kind of a blow-them-out-the-water-early campaign, early money is needed, and a good bit of it. 

Thus the possibility—and I am only suggesting it as a possibility—that the OPOA endorsement was rushed through in order to get Mr. Perata an infusion of needed cash, both through a direct contribution from the police union itself and through donations from individual officers. 

One thing is certain, however. The fumbling of the OPOA endorsement—whatever the reason—shows that the Perata machine is not as smooth and finely-tuned as Perata supporters would have us believe, and that the 2010 Oakland mayoral election will not be the “blue sky” slam dunk they have been projecting.