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




February 4 , 2010

Remember when at least one overenthusiastic Don Perata supporter was crowing that the former State Senator was going to cakewalk into the office of Mayor of the City of Oakland in 2010? (“With the dark cloud of a lingering federal probe behind him, there is nothing standing between former state Sen. Don Perata and the Oakland mayor's office but time, opportunity and blue skies.” Chip Johnson “With Probe Over, Perata Primed To Lead Oakland” San Francisco Chronicle May 29, 2009)

Hasn’t worked out quite that way, has it? Instead of a Perata walkover, it is possible that instead, this year might end up being one of the most competitive Oakland mayoral races in a generation or more.

It was easy to see Mr. Perata’s early game plan.

First, the former State Senate President aimed to weaken current Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums by a barrage of attacks—starting even before Mr. Dellums took office in January of 2007—with the purpose of either dropping the mayor’s political standing so low that it would discourage him from running again or, if he ran, to make him a severely weakened opponent.

Second, the Perata campaign orchestrated a Hillary Clinton-type “inevitability” blitz to try to convince people that Mr. Perata was such a shoo-in for mayor (“nothing but blue skies,” remember) that it would scare off any other major candidates.

Mr. Perata didn’t personally participate in the dump-on-Dellums attacks, but you can certainly see his hand behind many of them, from the frequent double-teaming against Mr. Dellums in the Chronicle by Mr. Johnson and former reporter Chris Heredia to the embargo of Dellums remarks by the Oakland Police Officers Association at the funeral of the four officers killed in the Lovelle Mixon shootings.

A lot of the sting went out of the Chip Johnson shots against Mr. Dellums when Mr. Heredia was laid off and could no longer serve as an offensive tackle for the East Bay columnist, opening up a line of attack for Mr. Johnson to lumber through. But the Johnson bias against the mayor continues unabated.

Remember two years ago when the Chronicle columnist was beating Mr. Dellums over the head in columns week after week, complaining about Oakland’s violent crime rate and demanding that the mayor do something about it? (“Oaklanders Fear They Can't Count On Police,” February 6, 2007; “Leadership Sadly Lacking In Wake Of The Killings,” August 7, 2007; “What Happened To Oakland’s Vote For More Cops?” October 9, 2007; “It’s Time For Dellums To Get Real On Fighting Crime,” October 16, 2007; “All Across Oakland, Public Safety Is The Issue, Mayor Dellums,” October 30, 2007; etc., etc., ad infinitum)

Last week, Mr. Johnson was on the Oakland crime issue again, but from a completely different angle.

“In Oakland,” he wrote, “it's good news when the new year does not start with a bang. With four murders this month, the city is on pace with last January's total, but serious crimes have dropped 38 percent compared with a year ago, according to Oakland Police Department statistics. I don't want to jinx a recent run of relative calm, but for a city that struggles to keep a lid on violent crime, 2010's drop in crime could be a signal that new crime-prevention efforts are starting to pay off.” (“Oakland Anti-Crime Efforts Bearing Fruit” January 28, 2010)

One thing was missing from Mr. Johnson’s “Bearing Fruit” column, however, and that was his favorite target: Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums.

While Mr. Johnson credits actions by newly-hired Chief Anthony Batts and Oakland City Attorney John Russo as instrumental in helping to bring down the city’s crime rate, the columnist makes no mention of Mr. Dellums, who set the ambitious goal of a 10 percent reduction in Oakland crime in his 2009 State of the City address and who subsequently hired the much-praised Mr. Batts.

Mr. Johnson, in other words, gave Mr. Dellums all the blame when things were going wrong with Oakland crime, but appeared to forget Mr. Dellums even existed when the crime situation in the city began to make a turnaround. If anyone thinks that is an accident, or is not part of the tear-down-Dellums strategy of Mr. Perata—who Mr. Johnson has all-but endorsed for mayor—then who’s being naïve now, Kay?

Anyway, the big buzz these days, of course, surrounds the sudden discovery by a lot of local observers that instead of staying beaten down by three years of attacks, Mr. Dellums might run for re-election and, in fact, might be a formidable candidate. That’s a 180 degree turnaround from a few months ago, when the general assumption was that Mr. Dellums would not run again. Given the sudden rise in Dellums visibility that has taken place since the hiring of Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts (including a campaign-like working of the room at the D’wayne Wiggins Sweets Ballroom Haitian relief concert last weekend), a large number of observers now believe, in fact, that Mr. Dellums is already running.

My position on a Dellums re-election candidacy hasn’t changed. I wasn’t counting out Mr. Dellums six months ago when others thought he was dead in the water, and despite the turnaround in public perception, I don’t believe the mayor has yet made the decision to run for re-election. I believe—as I have said before—that the uptick in the mayor’s public activity is most likely designed to give him the option to run again, if he so wishes. It is also possible that having scared the daylights out of his potential opponents and shown that he is no political has-been or pushover, the mayor could just as easily decide that he has nothing left to prove and retire at the end of a single term.

But if you think it’s been the Dellums resurgence that did the main work in slowing down the Perata express train to the 3rd Floor of Oakland City Hall, you’d be mistaken. Instead, it’s been the mayoral campaign of Oakland City Councilmember Jean Quan that has done the heaviest damage.

Ms. Quan began setting up an informal mayoral “exploratory committee” during the time that Mr. Perata was still fighting off the extended federal corruption investigation into his activities during his years as State Senator and California State Senate President. Ms. Quan had once been considered a Perata protégé—a Peratista, to use the colorful phrase coined by the late Tribune reporter Peggy Stinnett—and there was a widespread assumption in some quarters that even if she was no longer a close Perata ally, she would only stay in the mayoral race if a federal indictment kept Mr. Perata out.

But Ms. Quan did not drop out and apparently not impressed by the Perata political machine’s pronouncements of its own worth. Instead, she has continued to run her usual determined door-to-door campaign, speaking at every meeting and event and showing up on every doorstep she can—you might beat her, but you’re not going to outwork her—and that in itself seems to have thrown Mr. Perata off his early game plan.

Instead of being able to concentrate on criticisms of the Dellums record or on outlining his own plan for Oakland governance, almost all of the news about the Perata mayoral candidacy so far has been about the former State Senator’s maneuvering to gain some sort of electoral advantage. These are not the actions of a confident front-runner who is easily lapping the field, but give the impression of a candidate who feels he must scratch and claw—not coast or cakewalk—his way to victory. As examples of these political maneuverings:

* Mr. Perata’s attempt to convince the Oakland City Council to delay ranked-choice voting (IRV) for the 2010 mayoral election, despite the fact that a majority of Oakland voters had earlier approved the new voting system.

* The revelation of a recent $25,000 payment for consulting services to Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente from a Perata-controlled statewide campaign finance committee.

* Reversing his pledge to limit contributions to his campaign to $100 a person, and announcing that he will now accept the Oakland legal limit of $600 in contributions per person.

* A proposal by City Attorney John Russo to the Oakland City Council Rules Committee today (Thursday, February 4) asking scheduling of a full Council vote to double both the per-person contribution and the total campaign expenditure limit for Oakland’s elections. Who is behind the Russo campaign finance doubling proposal? Ms. Quan has already come out in opposition. In a Monday blog entry, East Bay Express reporter Robert Gammon ties it to Don Perata, also revealing that the Perata campaign is now nearly broke (“BREAKING NEWS: Perata Campaign Is Nearly Broke” February 1, 2010)

All of this is not meant to be a prediction of the ultimate outcome of the 2010 Oakland mayoral race. But with a persistent Councilmember Quan staying in the race, and with a revived Mayor Dellums perhaps about-to-be, the mayor’s race is no longer the done-deal Mr. Perata and his supporters had projected it to be. Them blue skies done got decidedly cloudy, guys.