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Why Is The San Francisco Chronicle Practicing A Double Standard When It Comes To Political Candidates And The Budget Crisis?

June, 2010
Anybody But Perata Website

Late last month, the San Francisco Chronicle made a powerful case that candidates for California governor in this year's election should release detailed plans on how they would solve the state's budget crisis. In a May 22 editorial called "Gubernatorial Candidates' Fuzzy Fiscal Plans," the Chronicle wrote "Wanted: a candidate for governor who is willing to confront tough choices and lay out plausible solutions for a state with a $20 billion budget deficit."

Saying that none of the major party primary candidates "comes close to meeting [that] criteria," the Chronicle editorial said that "the budgetary math being offered by Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner does not add up to a solution in the short or long term. Democrat Jerry Brown, who does not face significant opposition in the June 8 primary, has talked about the need for getting legislators together to make painful choices—while offering none of his own." The Chronicle editorial concluded that "[i]f Whitman, Poizner and Brown continue to mumble through the campaign with pain-avoidance platitudes, the winner is going to be in the untenable position of having to start breaking promises from the day he or she enters office."

That's good stuff, true, and fair to all sides.

We just wonder why the Chronicle doesn't apply the same fair standard to the race for mayor of the City of Oakland.

Oakland, for example, is currently facing a major budget deficit gap of its own. Newspaper reports and most public officials put that gap at $42 million, while Oakland City Council President Jane Brunner puts the deficit it at $31.5 million after the Council approved $11 million in budget cuts in April. Whatever the actual figure, everyone agrees that Oakland's budget problems are major—a crisis, in fact—and some combination of program and personnel cuts and tax increases must be quickly made in order to bring the city's finances back into balance.

So what standard is the San Francisco Chronicle applying to Oakland's mayoral candidates and public officials and the city's budget problems?

While the Chronicle editorial board itself has been silent on the issue, Chip Johnson, the Chronicle's east bay columnist, has been making his feelings known.

In a June 1, 2010 column called "Oakland Council Must Step Up And Face Hard Cuts," Johnson criticized both Mayor Ron Dellums and most of the Oakland City Council for not coming up with detailed plans to close the city's budget deficit.

"[I]f it's concern about taking the blame for deep cuts to close [the] budget gap, [Councilmembers] need to go ahead and get on with it," Johnson wrote. "In the absence of even the scent of leadership from the mayor's office," Johnson wrote, "it is left to the council to put aside whatever differences exist among the members to consider the best options and outcomes for the majority of Oakland's residents. To be fair, the council was given precious little in the way of guidance from the budget document submitted by the mayor's office. Dellums' instructions were pretty basic: Trim a few jobs here and there, don't touch his own bloated office staff, and pass the remaining budget overruns on to citizens in the form of a parcel tax. He has not made another budget suggestion since he submitted the document earlier this spring, and I thank him for it."

Johnson points out that two members of the Oakland City Council have already released budget plans or are working on them: Council President Jane Brunner and former Council President Ignacio De La Fuente.

Then who on the Oakland City Council is he criticizing, and what does this have to do with the Oakland mayoral race?

That's when you have to read between the lines and see how the Chronicle is trying to shape public opinion in the Oakland mayoral race.

Two members of the City Council who Chip Johnson did not mention by name in his column are Council Finance Committee Chair Jean Quan and At-Large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. Both Quan and Kaplan are candidates for Oakland mayor in the November election. And even though he does not specifically name them, it is easy to see that Quan and Kaplan are his main targets when he accuses the Council of failing to exercise leadership on Oakland's budget crisis. And the one person who Chip Johnson does single out for special criticism, of course, is his special target, Mayor Dellums, who has not yet announced whether he will be a candidate for re-election.

Why do we believe that Chip Johnson is specifically targeting the two Oakland mayoral candidates—Quan and Kaplan—in his "Oakland Council Must Step Up And Face Hard Cuts" column ?

Because Johnson has already made known his preference in the Oakland mayor's race: former State Senator Don Perata. Over the years, Chip Johnson has been a longtime Perata supporter, and has done everything but announce his endorsement of Perata for mayor.

As far back as February of 2008, a full year before Perata announced his candidacy, Johnson was calling Perata a "good fit" for Oakland mayor ("Oakland's Mayor Politicks As People Are Killed"). And a year later, after federal law enforcement officials dropped their longtime criminal corruption probe against Perata, Johnson wrote that "there is nothing standing between former state Sen. Don Perata and the Oakland mayor's office but time, opportunity and blue skies" ("With Probe Over, Perata Primed To Lead Oakland").

Chip Johnson Don Perata

But with Oakland facing as serious a budget problem as the State of California, Perata has been pointedly vague about what he would do to solve those problems if he were elected as mayor of Oakland.

In an April 5 posting on his Perata For Mayor website called "Oakland Voters Asked Again to Subsidize City Hall’s Inefficiency," for example, makes one possible specific suggestion about closing the budget deficit: putting a measure on the ballot to renew the city's one-half cent tax. But Perata then goes on to say that "Every dollar should be accounted for before raising taxes. ... City Hall should be making serious political cuts before cutting city services." Perata then goes on to say that "the city also needs to re-look at how it’s using public money." That's it. Those are Perata's campaign website suggestions on how to solve the city's budget problem.

Speaking to voters at campaign appearances, Don Perata is just as vague. During one of his "community conversation" campaign events in Rockridge in May, for example, Perata said that he had read the Oakland City budget online but did not understand it, and suggested that Oakland officials were deliberately making the budget difficult to read. And in Rockridge and other campaign appearances, Perata has not given detailed, specific answers to exactly what programs he would cut or taxes he would raise or funds he would solicit in order to close Oakland's budget gap. Instead of telling us what he would do as mayor, Perata spends his time blaming the Council or the mayor for what they aren't doing. "It’s a leadership vacuum that’s causing this waste, inefficiency, and inequality," he writes in his "City Hall's Inefficiency" article on his website. "The City Council has not stepped into the leadership void but instead, dragged its feet and ducked its responsibilities."

But in his "Oakland Council Must Step Up And Face Hard Cuts" column, Chip Johnson doesn't mention Perata—his favorite mayoral candidate—as someone who needs to step up and produce a budget plan.

Of course, the editors at the Chronicle can say that Chip Johnson is simply writing an opinion column, and the Chronicle editorial board has not taken a position on the Oakland mayoral race. But if the Chronicle editorial board is keeping silent about the responsibilities of the Oakland mayoral candidates to say what they would do about Oakland's budget problems, then Chip Johnson's column becomes the only opinion the Chronicle is giving on the Oakland mayoral race. And while the Chronicle is being even-handed in its criticism of the state gubernatorial candidates and the budget issue, Chip Johnson is being hard on all the Oakland mayoral candidates or potential candidates except Don Perata.

That leaves us with two questions.

First, why has the San Francisco Chronicle turned all of its Oakland political opinion over to Chip Johnson, who has already shown his strong bias in favor of Don Perata?

And second, why does the Chronicle believe that candidates for California governor should "lay out plausible solutions" for the state's budget problems, as they say in their "Gubernatorial Candidates' Fuzzy Fiscal Plans" editorial, while the San Francisco paper lets Chip Johnson give Don Perata a pass when it comes to laying out such solutions for the same problems in Oakland?

Anybody But Perata Website
June 7, 2010


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