Few people, other than right-wing conservatives, would describe state Senator Don Perata as a diehard liberal. His close ties to East Bay business interests, for example, are anathema to environmentalists. Instead, Perata has gained the reputation over the years of being a political pragmatist, a consummate dealmaker, a man who gets things done.
But that reputation may be more myth than reality. This newspaper’s analysis shows that Perata has risen to the second most powerful position in state government not because he is particularly adept at what many voters may consider to be the most important attribute a legislator can have — being an effective lawmaker. In fact, Perata’s track record of writing bills, fighting for them, and striking compromises to ensure that they’re signed into law could be best described as being, well, below average — even dismal.
Since Perata first took office in January 1997 as a member of the Assembly, only three of every ten bills he authored were signed by the governor, according to the analysis. Perata’s legislative batting average, as it is called in some political circles, is .302.
While batting three hundred in the major leagues might land you a spot in the All-Star Game, it’s an embarrassment in the state Capitol. Senator Martha Escutia, who barely lost to Perata for president pro tem earlier this year, batted a respectable .451 during the same time. Senator Sheila Kuehl, Perata’s other main rival for the president’s post, did even better: She hit a healthy .525 over the same period. And John Burton, the outgoing pro tem? He was the Barry Bonds of the Legislature, batting a whopping .553 — and it’s believed that Burton managed this feat without using steroids.
Even some of the woefully outnumbered Republicans outperformed Perata, during a time when Democrats controlled both houses of the Legislature and held the governor’s mansion for five of the eight years analyzed. Dick Ackerman, the current Senate Republican minority leader, batted .412.
During that time, Perata also had fewer bills signed into law than his main Democratic rivals. Escutia had 101, compared to 95 for Kuehl and 73 for Perata. Yet Perata introduced more bills than they did.
Thad Kousser, an assistant political science professor at UC San Diego who has studied legislative batting averages, calls them a crude tool for analyzing a lawmaker’s effectiveness. He warned that batting averages, for example, reveal little about the ambitiousness of a legislator’s agenda. If lawmakers author sweeping bills that are unlikely to get passed, they will strike out. Or legislators may be unhappy that their bills were gutted in committee, and decide to drop them rather than end up with some silly unfunded study.
But Perata is not known for serving up pie-in-the-sky legislation. After all, he’s known as a guy who gets things done. Kousser, who coauthored a recent study with UC Berkeley professor Bruce Cain on the failure of term limits in California, admitted he was stunned to learn how poor Perata’s average was. ¨His batting average is a lot lower than what we’ve found for legislative leaders,¨ Kousser said.
In fact, it’s lower than Kousser and Cain’s figures for rookie legislators. According to their term limits study, released last month, the mean batting average for first-time Democratic legislators in 1996 was above .450. By contrast, Perata batted an anemic .171 in his first term in 1997-98. To be fair, he has shown improvement each session since. He batted .396 in 2003-04, up from .325 in 2001-02.
Still, it makes you wonder: How did Perata just get elected to be the leader of his party, if he can’t hit worth a lick? Turns out, being chosen as pro tem has nothing to do with writing and passing laws.
It’s about money, Kousser said.
And in that game, Perata has few equals. Since 2000, campaign finance records show that Perata hauled in $3.5 million for his own political campaigns. That doesn’t count the millions he has raised for a wide assortment of political action committees he has launched or been associated with during that time. By comparison, Escutia raised just $934,000 for her campaigns. Kuehl did better: she raised $2.3 million.
But what really sets Perata apart is that he doesn’t need to hog all of his campaign cash for himself. As head of the East Bay political machine, he hasn’t been in a close election fight since 1998. As a result, Perata was able to dole out nearly $1.2 million of his $3.5 million to help other candidates and causes, including giving $579,100 to the Democratic Party. Escutia, meanwhile, could afford to pay out only $406,000 for other candidates and causes, while Kuehl gave away $510,000.
In today’s politics, showing people the money is the definition of getting things done.