Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




March 28, 2008

Back South, they say that if a single buzzard passes over your rooftop, don’t pay it no mind. But if you see a couple of them circling, you best check out in the yard. They’re most likely looking for easy pickings.

Not that I’m calling San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson and political consultant and columnist Clint Reilly buzzards, but both of them—seemingly independently, but you never know—have suddenly come up with the idea that outgoing State Senate President Don Perata ought to be Oakland’s next mayor.

Now where in the world did Mr. Johnson and Mr. Reilly get that idea, one wonders.

In mid-February, Mr. Johnson wrote a column ["Oakland's Mayor Politicks As People Are Killed"] that criticized Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums for being out of town and, therefore, failing to address a recent rise in murders and violent crimes in the city. A discussion on whether or not that constitutes a valid criticism of Mr. Dellums by Mr. Johnson will have to wait until another time. But way, far down in the column, Mr. Johnson mentions Mr. Perata as someone he believes would be a good alternative to Mr. Dellums. “[Mr. Perata] will be termed out of office next year and has his own future to look out for,” Mr. Johnson writes, “and if Dellums isn't up to the job, his seat might be a good fit for a veteran East Bay politician.”

That seems like unintentionally insightful writing on Mr. Johnson’s part, the fact that Mr. Perata as Oakland mayor is all about Mr. Perata and where he needs to land after hopping out of Sacramento, rather than what is needed for Oakland. Keep that point in mind as we move closer to the Oakland 2010 mayoral election.

A month later, Mr. Reilly writes in a column reprinted in several Bay Area newspapers that it is Oakland that needs Mr. Perata. In fact, he says in the column’s title, “Perata Is Oakland’s Hope.”

“Oakland’s leadership crisis troubles me,” Mr. Reilly writes, adding that “today, Oakland suffers from the bewildering rhetoric and bumbling policies of Mayor Ron Dellums. No American politician more clearly evidences the impotence of ideological rhetoric as a prescription for curbing urban violence than Dellums. His bombastic sermons echo Fidel Castro. At times, the most violent parts of his city resemble an American Baghdad. Dellums is painfully out of touch with the law enforcement best practices that have turned around other big American citites.”

But relief is in sight, Mr. Reilly informs.

“… Oakland is fortunate to have one of California’s most able politicians protecting its interests in Sacramento,” he goes on, noting that this able politician is Don Perata. After a recitation of what he says is Mr. Perata’s history and accomplishments, Mr. Reilly concludes that “Oakland desperately needs a nuts-and-bolts mayor to fix its ongoing problems. There is no better political mechanic operating today than Don Perata.”

As Samuel L. Jackson said in “Pulp Fiction” before he and John Travolta lit up the suburban drug dealer, allow me to retort. I have a somewhat different measure of leadership.

My first and foremost standard for leadership is that if a leader sends troops into battle, the leader sticks around to make sure things are going allright, makes adjustments if things are going wrong, and takes the full consequences if things go disastrously. Most importantly, a good leader doesn’t leave the troops stranded. By that standard, Mr. Perata is not a poor leader. He’s not even a leader at all, but a man who has a history of ducking for cover and looking out for his own interests when the going gets tough.

I cite two examples, and let you be the judge.

In the mid-90’s, Mr. Perata was one of the major players in crafting the complicated deal that brought the Raiders football team back to Oakland. The Raiders came back, but it is universally accepted that it was a bad deal for the taxpayers of Oakland and Alameda County, costing us millions of dollars a year in money. In Oakland, in fact, the term “Raider deal” is synonymous with government inefficiency and corruption, one of the main reasons why many Oakland residents stopped trusting City Hall.

In a 2003 article about one of the many lawsuits between the Raiders, Oakland, and Alameda County over the deal—a lawsuit in which the Raiders tried unsuccessfully to get Perata to testify—the Oakland Tribune wrote that “Raiders attorneys want Perata … to testify because [he] served as county supervisor when the county and city were negotiating to bring the team back from Los Angeles. [He was] instrumental in appointing members to an independent body that negotiated the Raiders deal and in pushing for approval of the final deal…”

“Perata's ties to the case are based on his longtime friendship with Ed DeSilva, an Alameda County contractor who was lead negotiator in the Raiders deal for the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Board,” the 2003 Tribune article went on to say. “The board was created as an independent body of local business leaders to run the Coliseum Complex. DeSilva, who has bankrolled many Perata election campaigns, was appointed to that board by the county supervisors, at Perata's request. … Perata's connection to the case also stems from his previous employment at the Oakland Football Marketing Association, a group formed to sell tickets to Raider games. Perata was hired by the group after he lost a campaign for state controller in 1994.”

Mr. Perata’s hands, in other words, were all over the Raiders deal.

Has Don Perata ever acknowledged any errors in the Raider deal? Never, to my knowledge. What steps has the State Senator taken to mitigate the damage done to Oakland and Alameda taxpayers by that deal? To my knowledge, again, none. In fact, Mr. Perata distanced himself so completely from the Raiders deal that other local politicians—Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente and former Alameda County Supervisor Mary King—more often get blamed for the deal, while Mr. Perata’s name is rarely mentioned.

Mr. De La Fuente, in fact, continues to try to get relief for Oakland from the results of the Raiders deal, an example of how leadership should act when an error is made.

A second example of Mr. Perata’s failure of leadership when things fall apart is in the state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District.

It’s widely known that Mr. Perata sponsored the 2003 legislation that authorized the OUSD state takeover. But in an April, 2003 UnderCurrents column, I wrote about how this was not the first time Mr. Perata sought state seizure of the Oakland schools.

“Back in 1998,” I wrote in the 2003 column, “[Mr. Perata] called for the firing of then-Superintendent Carol Quan because of Oakland’s habitual low student test scores, on-campus crime, discipline problems and substandard textbooks and instructional technology. He also cited poor fiscal management, but poor fiscal management in 1998 terms didn’t mean overspending the budget, but rather a bloated downtown bureaucracy and not enough money for direct-education things like teacher salaries and counselors. And if the OUSD School Board didn’t fire Quan, Perata said he would … sponsor a bill to have the state take over administration of the Oakland Public Schools. In fact, at the time, he said he was already drawing up such legislation.”

Mr. Perata’s pressure—along with that of then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown—eventually led to the firing of Ms. Quan, and to the hiring of Dennis Chaconas as Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District. But after the 2003 OUSD budget shortfall—and, many in Oakland have speculated, after Mr. Chaconas’ failed to go along with Mr. Perata’s proposal to sell the valuable OUSD administrative headquarters to private developers—Mr. Perata led the way in the state legislature for California to take over Oakland’s schools.

That story has been told many times. It is what happened afterwards—and, more importantly, what did not happen afterwards—that is key to the understanding of Mr. Perata’s leadership, or lack thereof.

Under the legislation written by Mr. Perata, the state-hired OUSD administrator was supposed to clear up OUSD’s financial difficulties, while leaving intact the education reforms put in place under Mr. Chaconas. Instead, the state administrator did exactly the opposite. Under state administration, OUSD went deeper in debt than when it was when the state took over, while the state administrator fiddling and tinkered with the education plan, turning the Oakland school district into a vast educational experimental ground. For years, parents, teachers, and OUSD school board members complained that the state administration was not acting as it should, and that things were going terribly wrong in Oakland under state control. One of the things going wrong was that there was no clearly-defined way for Oakland to win back control of its school district, meaning the state was free to run Oakland schools until the state decided it was tired of the job.

Meanwhile, Mr. Perata, who was deeply involved in telling Oakland how we should run our schools when we were running our own schools, suddenly lost all public interest in Oakland’s schools after the state took over, a takeover that he had long threatened and advocated.
In other words, when the citizens of Oakland had to face bad consequences over the results of an action by Mr. Perata, Mr. Perata “booked” (to use a phrase from the Oakland streets.

Was their another course?

After his election to the 16th Assembly District in 2006, Sandré Swanson showed us that there was. While never interfering with the state administration of OUSD, Mr. Swanson focused attention on how that administration was being carried out—or not being carried out—while putting on legislative pressure that has led to a partial return to local control.

Mr. Swanson did this as a first-term Assemblymember. It is something the powerful Mr. Perata could have done in his position as President of the California State Senate, but chose not to.

A last point, before we go. Mr. Perata also has a reputation of “eating his young”—tossing aside loyal protégés, that is, when his political ambitions get in the way of theirs. Thus, he has kept a loyal former 16th District Assemblymember Wilma Chan waiting for several years while Mr. Perata got a willing judge to grant him more than his share of time in the Senate District 9 seat, making Ms. Chan’s run against sitting 14th Assemblymember Loni Hancock an uphill battle. Loyalty to those who are loyal to you is another leadership quality I value, one that Mr. Perata does not appear to hold.

For myself, I will need a lot more convincing that—in Mr. Johnson’s words—Oakland would be a “good fit” for Mr. Perata, at least if that term is meant to mean of some benefit for Oakland. Otherwise, right now, it sounds like something we need to demand a prophylactic for, while bracing ourselves against the wall.

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