Don Perata, one of 10 candidates for Oakland mayor, has had a long history of public service. Perata spent 16 years teaching in Alameda County and says his later career as a Sacramento politician—12 years in the state senate, including four as a top senate Democrat—has given him name recognition, a following of eager constituents, and the help of prominent donors. As a legislator, Perata negotiated significant infrastructure bonds, passed a historic assault weapons ban, and authored 2008’s Proposition 1C to support development at the MacArthur BART transit village.
But his record has also been marred with controversy. In 2004, the FBI began a five-year investigation to discern whether an Oakland City Hall lobbyist had funneled money into Perata’s campaign, although he was never charged with a crime. Most recently, city council member and fellow mayoral candidate Jean Quan has alleged that Perata violated the candidates’ agreed-upon $379,000 campaign spending limit with the help of a donor, the Coalition for a Safer California. The Oakland City Council Rules and Legislation Committee will address the issue at a meeting this Thursday.
Perata sat down with Oakland North to outline his campaign’s finances and detail his candidacy for mayor. The following is a shortened version of the exclusive hour-long interview.
Q: Why run for mayor of Oakland?
It’s the most honored position that people can bestow upon you. I think, right now, this city needs a strong leader who’s willing and able to make tough decisions, and I think it exactly suits my skill set that I’ve developed over the years. I’m at a point in my life now where, politically, I’m pretty much a free agent. I’m not padding my resume; I’m not interested in running for anything else. To me, it just would be a labor of love.
Q: What distinguishes you from the other 9 candidates for Oakland mayor?
I’m probably the only one that has demonstrated political leadership skills. It’s very curious, the number of people who are talking about experience as though it’s a bad thing. Politics may be the only profession where it’s become fashionable to say, “We want people who don’t know anything and who haven’t done anything.” You wouldn’t want to take a 747 across the ocean with a pilot who’s making his maiden voyage, his first flight. If you use the same standard, then I think I have the experience, the whiskers, and the scars.
Q: Where do you believe you stand in this race in comparison to your competition?
You know, it’s really hard to tell. Ranked choice voting is a wild card. The polls are just a snapshot in time. One of the things I’ve seen in Oakland for the first time since I campaigned here is a more palpable disillusionment than I think I’ve seen before. Part of it I think is that the expectations for Ron Dellums were so great because he was, you know, such a popular figure.
Q: How do you feel personally about Dellums’ performance?
Well, Ron has not been a good mayor. I’ve known Ron for over 40 years, and at the time he announced, he looked reluctant. He said he would do it if people wanted him to do it. He was also very clear with people: “I ain’t gonna be a full-time mayor.” And he was good to his word: He was not. A mayor has to be present, not only visibly present, but in the moment, as they say. If you’ve got a crime in your neighborhood, if you’ve got a pothole, a lot of this stuff’s not very glamorous, but that’s what people expect.
Q: What are the top two Oakland issues that you would make your highest priority as mayor?
One is the functionality of the city, making it work. You have a very short period of time to show people there’s a new sheriff in town, as it were. For me—and I’ve told people— it’s very simple: Every morning at 8 o’clock, I meet with the entire administrative staff, and I’ll tell them I’m going to be evaluating them. I’m going to go out into the community and I’m going to see how they’re doing. I will hold everybody who has a top job accountable for their jurisdiction, and if they’re not going to do the job, they won’t be there.
One is the budget. The big problem I have is I don’t think anybody at city hall really knows what the numbers are, how close we are to not meeting the cash flow. We’re going to have to negotiate with all our public employee unions. You got to tell them “These are the facts, verify them if you will. Now, you know what the facts are. What are we going to do about solving it? We’re going to solve it together or we’re not going to solve it.”
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of the ranked choice voting system?
I don’t see any advantage right now. The voters voted on it overwhelmingly. The council had the responsibility for implementing it and they blew the job. If it doesn’t work out, it’s going to be because of the mechanics of it. People complain at these debates, that just, you know, you can’t really draw any distinctions because there’s no chance to answer a question. That’s one of the best things about a traditional primary. Everybody runs and then you have a runoff and then you focus on the two people. There may be advantages—I don’t know what they are.
Q: How has ranked choice voting affected the size of the mayoral forums?
[The] League of Women Voters, ironically, only wanted to have certain people invited based upon a poll or some other thing, and I said, “Look, I’m a civics teacher. You pay your money, literally. You get your signatures of support. You’re a candidate.” Who am I or who are you to say this guy is not a legitimate candidate? But when somebody’s asking you a complex question and you’ve got a minute to answer it, you’re talking in bumper stickers.
Q: Has your record as former State Senate President Pro Tem affected your standing in this race?
I think my name ID is—well, I know it is—it’s higher than anybody else’s, but you won’t find too many Republicans that have a high opinion of me. I’ve done a lot of controversial stuff with gun control. You look at my record it’s too long to run away from, and so you find stuff that I’ve done that you don’t like. In the main, I think it’s better to be known. I’d rather people know what they know about me. “Does his record fit the perceived needs of the state?” I think that’s the way people will have to measure if I fit the bill for city hall.
Q: Has your campaign spent over the $379,000 limit agreed upon by all candidates?
[Note: The Oakland Campaign Reform Act requires that candidates for the Oakland mayor’s race not spend more than $379,000, with certain exceptions. One exception lifts the spending ceiling for all parties if an independent expenditure (IE) committee donates more than $90,000 dollars to any one campaign.]
Yes, we have now. The ordinance, though, it’s not a clearly drafted ordinance according to the city attorney. We’ve been relying on his opinion. He said when the cap is broken, and originally—this was put into law 10 years ago—the city clerk had the responsibility for doing a CPI [Consumer Price Index]. She never did it. So, it started at $70,000. Everybody was saying “What the hell?” Then she moved it up to $90,000 or something. So once [a donation] came to that amount—and we held our position until that happened—then the cap comes off.
And so we are now functioning in the rules that governed Ron Dellums and Ignacio De La Fuente and Nancy Nadel in their election. But we have been very, very careful that we are compliant with the letter of the law. And it’s been amazing, it took two or three weeks for everybody to agree what the law was about.
Q: So, just to be clear, you did sign a pledge agreeing to the limit, but then the contract was broken?
The ordinance says you sign an agreement and the agreement is null and void if independent expenditures exceed a certain amount. So I signed it knowing that. That’s what I signed. If you don’t want that, don’t put it in the law.
Q: So you were committed to the campaign expenditure limit until you received that $90,000 contribution?
Until an IE spent it, yeah. It’s kind of surprising that people are treating it like this is new. Ron Dellums, in fact, was way over the cap before the independent cap broke. To me, I think it’s like white noise.
Q: Did you plan on spending beyond the campaign expenditure limit before the cap was broken?
I was prepared to, yes.
Q: The $90,000 spending cap to invalidate the limit was spent by the Coalition for a Safer California?
[Note: Coalition for a Safer California is a lobbying group composed of correctional officers and prison officials. Perata’s consulting firm previously advised the California Correction Peace Officers Association.]
Right now, but I think it’s been broken again. OakPAC just endorsed and they spent about $175,000 last year. I do think, if they haven’t, they’re probably close.
Q: What would you say to someone who says that you worked out a deal with the Coalition for a Safer California to lift the spending ceiling?
They’re accusing me of breaking the law. The answer is “No.” I’ve got a very good relationship with law enforcement. I’ve been a champion of both criminal justice reform and supporting both firefighters and cops. That they should somehow, that groups would want to help me—it’s happened my entire career.
Q: How is your relationship with the other 9 candidates who are running?
With eight of them, it’s fine. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, [Jean] Quan put out a so-called hit piece on me, and when you attack my family and you question my health in a sort of obtuse way, that gets personal. I just don’t put up with that.
[Note: A recent Quan campaign mailer suggests Perata paid his son out of his campaign fund. The mailer displays an East Bay Express headline that reads ”Cancer in the Oakland Mayor’s Race.” Though the article's content focuses on Perata's use of funds in connection to a cancer research initiative, Perata took offense that the headline mentioned cancer in light of his recent prostate cancer treatment.]
If you want to come at me on what I’ve done—something that she does not have the stones to say—ask me the question about the five-year FBI investigation and I’ll give you the answer: I was president of the state senate as a Democrat, the most powerful Democrat in California. The day after I was sworn in as president, all this stuff started to happen. It was a corrupt Justice Department, the Bush administration, Democrats all over the country were being indicted. They went through five years, $15 million, three grand juries with people just like you, and I was never even accused of anything. The day after Bush left the White House, everything stopped. I think it’s the price I paid for leadership, but I’m not for a minute going to say “Oh yeah, they had something going.” They’d never give you an exoneration publicly, they don’t send you a letter and say “You’ve been exonerated,” but I have been. But it’s like a bell, you can’t unring it.
[Note: The FBI launched a probe in 2004 to determine whether Perata or his relatives illegally benefitted from his actions as a public official. The investigation was closed in 2009 when the U.S. Attorney in Sacramento decided to not file charges.]
Q: Why do you feel people are drawn to your campaign?
I don’t believe in blaming anybody, I believe in solving people’s problems. No one has ever called my office in 22 years about any problem we didn’t go to bat for immediately. I think, over the years, people have just been grateful and appreciated the work that I’ve done, and I’m just honored to be able to do it.