The Man

How Don Perata became the politician he is today.

When Don Perata took his first stab at public office in 1975, he was a slow-growth leftist battling an Alameda building boom and the ambitious expansion plans of Harbor Bay Island developer Ron Cowan. Never short on guts, the 29-year-old set his sights high. He ran for mayor.

The city’s establishment looked down on Perata as some sort of wild-haired antiwar protester. But the Alameda schoolteacher, who spent his days schooling kids on Watergate and the speeches of Malcolm X, did surprisingly well. He lost by a mere seven hundred votes to Chuck Corica, who went on to reign over Alameda politics for the next two decades.

“That’s when I learned that campaigning is a game, as opposed to a higher calling,” Perata told the Express in 1995. “It was a painful lesson.” Painful, perhaps, but he learned it well. He promptly landed a job with Assemblyman John Miller, and when his boss was appointed to the bench in 1978, Perata again aimed high, making a run for Miller’s seat. This time he squared off against another up-and-coming East Bay politician, Elihu Harris. And unlike Perata, Harris had the juice. He was financed by Perata’s old nemesis, Cowan, and backed by state Senator Bill Lockyer. Harris outspent Perata six to one. Perata made it close anyway, losing by only six hundred votes.

Perata was zero for two, but he had shown political moxie and wasn’t about to quit. Instead, he displayed what would become one of his political trademarks — his ability to turn supporters of his opponents into allies. He persuaded Lockyer to hire him in Sacramento, and Lockyer in turn introduced him to state Senator Howard Berman, an influential Southern California legislator who also had supported Harris. Perata joined Berman’s staff and took up with Berman’s brother Michael, a legendary political operative. The Bermans taught Perata the art of fund-raising, hardball politics, and slick mailers; he was one of their star students.

Today, their pupil is the unquestioned head of the East Bay Democratic political machine, overseeing a network of family members, friends, and political allies throughout Alameda County. But his success stems less from the progressive principles that at first seemed to motivate him than from the way he raises money, jumpstarts political careers, schmoozes with reporters, and converts foes into friends. Case in point: Perata’s much-changed relationship with Cowan, who has gone from being the target of his campaign barbs to being a good pal and longtime campaign donor. Cowan also helped launch the career of Lily Hu, the lobbyist who became one of Perata’s closest confidantes and was the original focus of the current federal corruption probe into the senator’s finances.

Somewhere along the way during his almost four decades in politics, Don Perata became the type of politician whom he himself might have opposed as a 1975 civics teacher and political novice. He is tight with developers, who have greatly benefited from their strong support of him. He has deliberately cultivated the image of a mobster, and is ruthless about wielding power with those who stand in his way or don’t succumb to his charms — even former allies or love interests. And he has been involved in a dizzying array of ethically questionable financial deals. But somehow nothing ever sticks, which is how he came to be known as the Teflon Don.

On the heels of Perata’s recent confirmation as new president of the state Senate, it’s obvious that the federal investigation has failed to seriously harm him so far. No one knows for sure at this point how the investigation will turn out. The 59-year-old state senator, who brushed off interview requests, could face criminal charges, or the whole affair could amount to nothing more than a minor bump on his long road to becoming one of California’s most powerful men.

Perata’s first job was delivering milk for his father’s Alameda dairy business while he attended St. Joseph High School. He married young, wedding Rosemary Reilly in 1965 when he was twenty. He graduated the next year from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, where he met Timothy Staples, who would remain a longtime friend and business colleague, and is also now entwined in the current federal corruption investigation.

Perata was bitten early by the political bug and got his first taste of government work in 1966, volunteering for Democratic Assemblyman Robert Crown. Twenty years and two campaign losses later, Perata had a reputation for being a smart strategist who had yet to win at the ballot box. He changed all that when he ran for the county Board of Supervisors in 1986. As with his assembly bid eight years earlier, Perata was the white candidate vying for what was considered to be a black seat. His opponent was Sandre Swanson, an African American who worked for Congressman Ronald Dellums and had the backing of East Bay progressives.

But Perata took what he had learned from the Bermans, mixed in some old-fashioned door-to-door politics, and came up with a winning formula. Among the tricks he pulled from his bag was turning an ordinary household item — a potholder — into a campaign tool, a gimmick he employs to this day. He had 35,000 potholders printed with his name on them and mailed them to voters. Then he walked precinct after precinct in East Oakland, knocking on doors and simply outhustling his opposition. He dominated Alameda, just as he had done against Harris in 1978. But this time he captured nearly half the vote in East Oakland.

“He worked real, real hard,” said Mary King, who served with Perata on the board and met him while working on Lockyer’s staff. “He wouldn’t even go for a drink. It was just a driving force with him to do all things political.”

The man whose political hero was President John F. Kennedy was still something of an idealist. Once in office, he put the hardscrabble issues facing residents of East Oakland at the forefront of his political agenda. Gang killings were rampant, and the crack epidemic was spiraling out of control. So Perata formed an infant-mortality task force that looked into the issue of crack babies, fought tobacco and liquor ads near schools, and launched a support program for grandparents who were forced to raise their children’s children.

“The unique thing about Don is he will throw out ten ideas, knowing only one will probably catch on, but he supports all ten with equal energy,” said current boardmember Gail Steele.

No issue received more of Perata’s attention than gun control. He held hearings, targeted gun-store owners, and finally convinced David Roberti, then senate president, to sponsor a bill banning assault weapons. A 1989 massacre in a Stockton schoolyard spurred the legislation, and California became the first state to enact an assault weapons ban.

Battling the gun lobby vaulted Perata onto the nightly news. He quickly developed a flair for delivering the perfect quote on a wide range of hot-button issues. “He had this gift for getting the media around him,” King said. “He’d be working on something, and then all of the sudden, there would be this press conference.”

But despite his efforts on behalf of East Oakland, Perata was evolving into a political pragmatist. One of the experiences that forged his realpolitik was a 1991 battle in which King and other black leaders argued that his and her districts should be redrawn so that King could represent part of East Oakland. At the time, King’s district was mostly white Castro Valley and San Leandro. Perata felt betrayed, and complained that he was a victim of racial politics. But he lost.

“That’s when I realized that part of your effectiveness on the part of your constituents is to punish your enemies,” he said in 1995.

Perata also continued to build upon the lessons the Bermans had taught him. So while he championed the needs of his poor constituents, he also set out to forge relationships with some of the most powerful business interests in the East Bay. One of his closest friends was Ed DeSilva, a road builder and developer. DeSilva and his various companies and their employees were among Perata’s largest campaign donors in the 1990s. DeSilva once went so far as to forgive a $50,000 loan he had bestowed on one of Perata’s campaigns.

Although Perata fought hard for liberal social issues, his ties with developers often placed him at odds with environmentalists. In the early 1990s, for instance, he backed a proposal for eleven thousand homes in the Dougherty Valley near San Ramon. The main roadblock to the plan was the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which said it didn’t have enough water to serve the new development.

Environmentalists Nancy Nadel and Stuart Flashman were on the EBMUD board when it voted to sue over the project in 1993. It didn’t take long for Perata to punish his enemies. He called a press conference and accused EBMUD of wasting taxpayer funds. A year later, he engineered a hit-piece campaign against Flashman, who lost his bid for reelection. “I was pretty sore about that,” recalled Flashman, an environmental attorney. “It was clear that Perata had received a lot of campaign contributions from developers.”

Instead of cruising to a certain third term on the county board, Perata surprised political observers when he launched a 1994 campaign for state controller. It was a mistake. He poured dollar after dollar into a direct-mail campaign that flopped when most of the brochures and mailers never made it out of the warehouse. Perata then completely abandoned the campaign ten days before the election when his mother fell ill.

Out of office, Perata started Perata Engineering, his own political consulting business representing numerous East Bay business interests. But he was never completely out of the political fray. He worked behind the scenes to bring the Raiders back from Los Angeles, and made a quiet bid to be Oakland’s city manager. When that failed, he devised a strategy for winning a state Assembly seat in 1996.

Perata easily defeated former Oakland City Councilwoman Dezie Woods-Jones in that race, and after two years in Sacramento, he appeared content with his job in the lower house. When he won reelection in early 1998, he told friends and supporters that he had no plans to run for the state Senate seat just vacated by Barbara Lee, who had succeeded Dellums in Congress. In fact, Perata looked as if he were going to throw his weight behind one of his friends, Supervisor Keith Carson.

“Early on, he supported me,” Carson said. “We even had a couple of meetings at his house to talk strategy.” Carson was going head-to-head with Assemblywoman Dion Aroner in a classic clash of East Bay progressives.

Then Perata suddenly pulled an about-face and declared his candidacy. “I felt caught off guard,” Carson said. “I was angry at first, but I grew up in politics and I knew anything was possible.”

Some political insiders believe Perata purposely persuaded Carson to run, knowing that Carson and Aroner would split the progressive vote. And, of course, they did. Perata won easily in trusty Alameda, while picking up just enough votes in the rest of Oakland, Piedmont, and Berkeley to slip past Aroner.

Aroner would not comment on the 1998 race, but Carson said that, in hindsight, he made a mistake: “Had I stopped and realized what was going on, I probably would have pulled out of the election. I personally think she might have had a better chance to win. We were going after many of the same voters.”

As Perata’s political power continued to grow, his personal life turned tumultuous. His wife Rosemary, from whom he had separated in 1992, filed for divorce in April 1998, which became final that November. His father died in late August, just days before Perata’s Senate victory and a year after his mother finally succumbed to neurological dementia.

The terms of Perata’s divorce from Rosemary, who suffered from a chronic disease, appeared to put him up against a financial wall. He agreed to give her their houseboat and another piece of Alameda property they owned together, and to pay her $78,000 a year in spousal support. The support payments soaked up much of his annual income, which he declared in 1998 was $186,000 — $99,000 from his legislative salary, and the rest from Perata Engineering.

Perata’s finances grew tighter when he personally loaned his campaign $84,000 in 1998. But some relief came early the following year when he inherited two homes from his parents and promptly took out a $100,000 loan on one of them, public records show. He also obtained a $150,000 loan on his Alameda home before he purchased a house in Oakland near Piedmont Avenue for $445,000 later that year.

Around this time, Perata began to involve his adult son, Nick, more closely in his financial affairs. These arrangements have since become the focus of much scrutiny, raising public questions about whether Perata was enriching himself illegally with campaign funds by laundering them through his son.

Campaign finance records show that from 1998 to the present, the younger Perata grossed at least $910,098 in political consulting work on his father’s campaigns or on political committees the elder Perata personally launched or was associated with. During the same period, Nick, 31, paid rent to his father for two years for the home he and his wife, Katie, were living in. And for the past five years, he has paid rent for office space in another of the elder Perata’s Alameda properties. He also has bought two homes from his dad in the past three years, paying him $850,000.

Perata also has helped launch his daughter’s political consulting career. Rebecca Perata-Rosati, 36, and her companies BPR Productions and Vox Populi have been paid at least $61,734 since the beginning of 2000 by her father’s campaign and political committees he has been associated with.

Perata’s financial deals with his children are being probed by federal authorities. Father, son, and daughter have all denied wrongdoing.

By the late 1990s, Perata had assembled most of the basic building blocks of his machine, forging key relationships with Oakland politicians. Chief among them was Ignacio De La Fuente, a councilman from the city’s Fruitvale district, who remains Perata’s closest political ally.

The two first met in the mid-’80s when De La Fuente was a union activist fighting to save the jobs of 1,800 workers in East Oakland. Perata had just been elected to the board of supervisors and immediately responded to the union rep’s call. “He came down to the picket line,” De La Fuente recalled. “We’ve been friends ever since.”

Perata backed De La Fuente’s successful run for city council in 1992. He also helped launch the careers of several East Bay politicians by introducing them to some of his largest donors and assisting in their campaigns. An Oakland Tribune columnist dubbed De La Fuente and other Perata allies in Oakland the “Peratistas.” The group included Nate Miley, now on the county Board of Supervisors, and Sheila Jordan, the current county superintendent of schools. Other local elected officials supported by Perata include current Oakland City Councilmembers Danny Wan, Henry Chang, Jane Brunner, Larry Reid, and Jean Quan; school board members Noel Gallo and Kerry Hamill, who is also his former chief of staff; and City Attorney John Russo. Perata also was instrumental in the appointment of State Administrator Randolph Ward, who now has complete control over Oakland schools.

Perata established one of his most significant political partnerships in early 1999 when he buddied up to newly elected Mayor Jerry Brown, who had won in a landslide. The state senator quickly recognized Brown’s charisma with voters, and within two months of the new mayor being sworn in, Perata sought to increase that influence by exercising some of his own.

Perata introduced a bill in the Legislature designed to hand Brown the power to appoint a trustee-administrator to take over Oakland schools. At the time, the school district was enmeshed in controversy over the questionable use of public funds by then-Superintendent Carole Quan, whom Perata and Brown wanted to oust. The takeover threat worked. Quan resigned, and the school board agreed to replace her with George Musgrove, one of Brown’s deputies.

One year later, the school board dumped Musgrove for Dennis Chaconas over Brown and Perata’s objections. But following two years of staggering cost overruns, Perata and Brown again teamed up in the 2003 state takeover of Oakland schools. Early on, Perata called for Chaconas to be fired, and wrote the takeover legislation. Brown, whose dislike of Chaconas was almost legendary, called Ward’s appointment a “win-win” for Oakland.

Shortly after befriending Brown, Perata also introduced a bill that would have put the mayor on the Port Commission and allowed the governor to appoint two new commissioners. Brown was upset that outgoing Mayor Elihu Harris had appointed his estranged wife, Kathy Neal, to the commission before he left office. And Perata was unhappy with some of the decisions coming out of the Port Commission, which oversees not only the country’s fourth-largest container port, but also much of Oakland’s waterfront and Oakland International Airport. The senator eventually dropped the port takeover legislation after Brown appointed two new commission members in April 1999 — his developer friends John Protopappas and Phil Tagami, who became close to Perata as well.

Still, despite Perata and Brown’s cooperation on such issues, some City Hall insiders say the two have a relationship of convenience. Brown’s immense popularity required Perata to cozy up to him, while Brown quickly realized his success in the mayor’s office depended upon him obtaining buy-in from De La Fuente, whose actions are generally considered to have Perata’s approval. “Nothing gets done in this town without Ignacio signing off on it,” a high-placed city source said.

The need to work together hasn’t stopped either Perata or Brown from badmouthing one another behind the scenes, said one Oakland public official who was once backed by both men. “Jerry would say Don is a crook, and Don would say Jerry is a flake,” said school board member Dan Siegel, who is now a political enemy of both. Through a spokesman, Brown said: “Siegel is mistaken,” and refused to comment further.

Perata’s many alliances allow him to wield considerable power in Oakland. Many of the public officials Perata has supported must consider his desires because they are beholden to him, critics of his pet projects often claim. Maybe more important is the fear Perata instills even when he doesn’t personally apply pressure to oppose or support a particular contract or project. “Who wants to run the risk of losing his financial support or having a candidate he backs run against you?” said one City Hall source. “The politics in this town are really simple.”

Others say Perata’s influence in Oakland has been overblown. “I’ve sometimes agreed with Perata on votes and sometimes disagreed with him,” said Oakland Councilwoman Brunner, adding that she has never felt pressure from Perata to vote a specific way.

Still, there’s no denying that Oakland has done right by Perata’s buddies. For example, John Foster — Perata’s former student, longtime friend, and campaign donor — received a no-bid contract in 2001 to erect a giant row of billboards next to the Coliseum and Arena. Then last year, the Port Commission handed his company, Foster Interstate Media, the exclusive right to put up billboards around the airport.

But few contractors have done better than Perata’s old pal DeSilva, who was the single biggest beneficiary of port expansion projects from 1999 to 2002. DeSilva won the most major port contract bid competitions — fourteen — of any single business, totaling $178.3 million, port records show. And in late 2002, the council also green-lighted DeSilva’s controversial plan to build four hundred homes in the flood-prone Leona Quarry.

Back in the early ’90s, Perata was instrumental in getting DeSilva appointed to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Board, with an eye on persuading the Raiders to come back to Oakland. DeSilva had a prior business relationship with one of the minority owners, so when talks began in earnest in the spring of 1995, he became the key negotiator for the city and county.

The deal DeSilva and the Raiders hammered out was supposed to cost taxpayers nothing, but turned out to be an epic boondoggle. The public subsidy has now topped $200 million and is growing by $20 million annually–and the Raiders won a $34 million verdict last year in their suit against the city and county.

Despite his close ties to DeSilva and the work he did behind closed doors on the Raiders deal, Perata somehow managed to escape blame. It was perhaps the first example of what would become another of his trademarks — avoiding political fallout from a scandal.

Perata did it again in 1996 when the feds started investigating bond financier Calvin Grigsby. As a supervisor, Perata had helped steer eleven county bond deals to his friend Grigsby’s firm. Grigsby also had handled the $198 million in bonds sold to finance the Raiders deal. Records show that Grigsby also paid Perata $15,000 for consulting work after Perata left the board.

Grigsby was indicted in the late ’90s in a federal public corruption probe in Miami. He was later acquitted and returned to the Bay Area, where last year he hired Lily Hu to be his lobbyist in an Oakland development deal. Perata, of course, had helped Hu launch her lobbying business, and many of her clients also happen to be his friends.

Perata has added to his reputation in the past decade as a man to be reckoned with by intentionally fostering a Mafioso mystique. “The Don,” as he is sometimes called in homage to the fictional mob boss Don Corleone from The Godfather, has made no secret of his love for that movie and for the HBO show The Sopranos. According to a 2002 Tribune story, he had a life-size photo of James Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano, posted on the wall in his Sacramento Senate office.

Also on his office wall was a plaque that reads The Peratas, written like the logo from The Sopranos with a handgun in the place of the “r,” the Tribune reported. Perata, by the way, carries a gun himself; he has a concealed-weapon permit from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

As first reported in an August 2004 Los Angeles Times story, Perata e-mailed Chaconas in January 2001 referencing the horse’s-head-in-the-bed scene from the first Godfather movie as a figurative consequence for Chaconas if he didn’t do what the senator wanted. When asked whether he took the e-mail seriously, Chaconas replied: “Absolutely. But what are you going to do? I was scared, but I wasn’t going to do what he asked unless it was good for Oakland schools.”

Perata wanted Chaconas to hire Grigsby to sell the district’s $300 million in construction bonds approved by voters in 2000. He also introduced Chaconas to Staples, who was shilling waterless toilets. Chaconas turned down both solicitations. When asked whether he now believes those decisions led to Perata’s campaign to get him fired last year, Chaconas said: “Let’s put it this way. I knew that if I ever got into trouble, I would go down the tubes.”

When he isn’t pushing deals for his friends, Perata has a reputation for being a charmer, well-liked by powerful women. When talking to City Hall insiders about him, stories about his various romantic relationships invariably come up. One concerns Brunner, who, sources said, dated Perata for at least a year. Brunner refused to comment on the relationship. But many people in Oakland believe the affair somehow ended badly.

Why? A few years ago, Brunner expressed a strong desire to run for state Assembly. She formed a campaign committee in 2001 and began raising money. But her plans suddenly stopped when the legislative redistricting committee drew her block out of the 14th Assembly district as part of the realignment of districts done every ten years. It was widely viewed as typical Perata handiwork. After all, he was chairman of the Senate redistricting committee at the time.

“One block,” one high-placed city source said. “That was so cold.”

Brunner said she does not believe Perata was responsible for removing her house from the district, and said they remain friends. Instead, she blames Aroner, who represented the district at the time. But Aroner also denies responsibility, saying the redistricting was done purely based on population numbers and court cases on gerrymandering.

In the end, it doesn’t matter who really was responsible. What matters is that just about everyone but Brunner believes it was Perata. And so the story has become part of the Perata myth, serving as another cautionary tale of why it doesn’t pay to cross the Don.


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