Perata — effective wheeler-dealer;

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Senator stirs strong feelings from all sides

The San Francisco Chronicle

The winding career path of Oakland’s Don Perata doesn’t follow the tidy picture of political life painted in the civics textbooks he used for so many years teaching at Alameda High School.

The 59-year-old Perata, who fellow Democrats picked for the state Senate’s top job Tuesday, has spent more than 30 years in the nitty-gritty California politics, raising money, running campaigns, lobbying legislators and making law.

“Don lives, drinks, eats and breathes government in all its manifestations, including the hardball politics sometimes needed to get things done,” said Oakland City Attorney John Russo, who has known and worked with Perata for years. “He’s been a terrific advocate for Oakland. If you want to get something done in Sacramento, it’s Don.”

Critics complain that Perata’s “all politics, all the time” concentration doesn’t benefit only his East Bay constituents. A 2002 survey of Sacramento insiders by the California Journal, a nonpartisan state political magazine, listed Perata as tarnished when it came to integrity.

Consumer advocates have challenged Perata during his legislative career, accusing him of carrying bills for special interests that contributed big bucks to his campaigns. Perata always denied the charges.

He was criticized, for example, for carrying legislation that would have allowed insurance companies to levy surcharges against motorists whose insurance lapsed or who were buying car insurance for the first time. The bill was sponsored by Mercury Insurance, which gave Perata more than $25,000 in campaign contributions.

“He is the perfect poster child for backroom, old-world, cash-register politics,” said Jaime Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and a frequent Perata critic. “Tammany Hall has nothing on Perata’s operation.”

Perata also has plenty of supporters, people who call him an honest broker who’s able to hammer out the deals and compromises that keep government from grinding to a halt.

In two instances, the senator worked to exempt BART seismic safety work from environmental impact reports and to transfer state lands to the Port of Oakland for development. In each case, he managed to balance the need for construction and development with the worries of environmental groups, said Bill Allayaud, state director of the Sierra Club.

“He’s able to make sure people were comfortable with what was being done,” he said.

Both business groups and Perata’s GOP colleagues say he is someone they can work with.

“He is very knowledgeable and very fair,” said Maurine Padden, senior lobbyist for the California Bankers Association. “You can’t ask for more than that.”

Perata’s ability to get along with Republicans will help in the increasingly partisan arena of Sacramento politics, said Sen. Chuck Poochigian, R-Fresno.

“He has a degree of pragmatism that will be helpful in a divided house,” he said.

Perata is a product of the East Bay. He grew up in Alameda, where his father was owner of Alameda Dairy and Lakehurst Creamery, and graduated from St. Mary’s College in Moraga. After college, it was back home to teach high school students.

“He was a great teacher, really engaging,” said Gavin Payne, a veteran state worker who had Perata as a civics teacher at Alameda High School in 1977. “He was never interested in standing around and talking about government; instead, he provided real-world examples.”

Many of those examples came from the world of Democratic politics Perata was easing into. Even while he was teaching in the late 1960s, he was working with current Attorney General Bill Lockyer as a local representative for Alameda Assemblyman Robert Crown.

“After 16 years of teaching, I knew it was time for a change,” Perata said. “Besides, with two children at home getting older, I already could get my daily fix of teenagers.”

Perata moved into other political jobs, working as a staff member for Lockyer, Assemblymen John Miller and Elihu Harris and raising money for a trio of well-connected Southern California congressmen, Howard Berman, Henry Waxman and Mel Levine.

“He was always easy to deal with and smart, which impressed people,” said Levine, currently a Los Angeles attorney. “He’s likable, tenacious and talented and would have been a success in whatever he did.”

Perata wasn’t shy about using his connections when he decided to run for Alameda County supervisor. In 1986, he took on Sandre Swanson, a political protege of longtime Oakland Rep. Ron Dellums, and beat him without a runoff.

Perata pulled in money from Southern California Democrats he’d met on the political rounds and even paid to get his name on a Democratic slate mailer card that made him look like the party’s picked candidate in the nonpartisan race.

He quickly became known as a politician with a love affair for television cameras, an expert in getting the media to pay attention to his crusades.

In 1988, when East Bay officials tried to ban assault rifles, Perata was the one to wave a weapon in front of the television cameras. He illustrated a hearing on alcohol problems in the inner city with a lineup of bottles and cans of cheap wine and malt liquor straight out of local liquor stores.

But those colorful efforts were more than just a one-time show. In 1999, after years of battling for gun control and seeing his bills vetoed, Perata finally saw Gov. Gray Davis sign his bill giving California the nation’s toughest assault weapons ban.

“If you take on an issue that’s highly contentious and emotional, you have to try and move it a little ways each year,” Perata said. “You’re either in it for the long term or don’t start at all.”

Perata “is willing to do hard things most elected officials don’t want to deal with,” said Russo, citing the senator’s longtime support of a $3 bridge toll to pay for Bay Area traffic improvements.

“No one wants to raise the bridge toll; you don’t make any friends doing that,” he said. “But Don knew it was something that had to be done.”

But the way he successfully pushed the bridge toll measure, Regional Measure 2, in the March election shows the type of questions Perata’s political dealings have raised.

One of the fund-raisers for the measure was Tim Staples, Perata’s college roommate. Staples has been a well-paid consultant with several campaigns the senator has been associated with, sometimes at Perata’s recommendation. At the same time, Staples was paying Perata about $100,000 a year in a separate deal for consulting services. Perata ended the business relationship with Staples last year, after a series of stories in The Chronicle.

“There was nothing wrong with what I did,” Perata said, “but I never thought clearly enough about the principle in politics that it’s all about the way things look.”

Regional Measure 2, which Perata worked on for three years in the Legislature, also provides millions for expanded ferry service on the bay. Ron Cowan, an East Bay developer who has pushed for more ferries to serve his shoreline residential and business interests, has contributed around $100,000 to Perata in recent years.

Other questions have surfaced about Perata’s support for his son Nick’s political direct mail business. While Nick Perata’s company, Exit Strategies, was collecting hundreds of thousands in fees from his father’s campaign and other groups linked to Don Perata, he was paying thousands to rent offices and living space from his father.

The complaints haven’t hurt Perata’s career. Throughout it all, Perata has kept his attention on his district, enough so to be dubbed the most powerful politician in the East Bay. He’s made no secret of his plan to run for mayor of Oakland someday, although not until he’s termed out of his Senate seat in 2008.

“He stays connected to his district,” said his longtime friend Harris, who moved from the Assembly to the Oakland mayor’s office and is now chancellor of the Peralta Community College District. “He knows about our concerns and our problems.”
Chronicle staff writers Lynda Gledhill and Mark Martin contributed to this report.
E-mail John Wildermuth at [email protected]

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