Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




June 5, 2008

Okay. I’ll bite. Who did termed-out State Senator Don Perata end up endorsing as his successor in this week’s Democratic primary for the 9th Senate District? (A race won easily by 14th District Assemblymember Loni Hancock over former 16th District Assemblymember Wilma Chan.)

If you can figure it out, please drop me an email. Myself, I’m thoroughly confused.

Throughout the spring, Ms. Hancock and Ms. Chan both included Mr. Perata’s name on endorsement lists on their respective websites, indicating that Mr. Perata was doing a dual endorsement. That was an indication that Mr. Perata either didn’t want to—or couldn’t—pick sides in one of the most important political decisions in our region. That’s okay, if he didn’t want to choose between Ms. Hancock or Ms. Chan, although not quite the demonstration of leadership that Mr. Perata’s supporters keep reminding us that we’re getting from him.

But then it got worse.

In a May 12th Political Blotter blog published online by the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times entitled “Don Perata Un-Endorses Wilma Chan?”, political writer Josh Richman wrote that Mr. Perata’s name and picture had pointedly disappeared from Ms. Chan’s online endorsement list. “Two Chan campaign staffers haven’t yet returned phone calls and e-mails about this,” Mr. Richman wrote, ‘watch for updates if and when they do.”

I watched. Didn’t see any updates. So a few days after the Richman piece was published, I decided to check on this myself.

I called Mr. Perata’s Sacramento office and was told someone would call me back. They didn’t.

The folks in Ms. Hancock’s campaign headquarters said they had no idea what was happening with the Perata-Chan endorsement; for their part, they knew that Ms. Hancock had Mr. Perata’s endorsement, and were happy to send me a recent letter to that effect, if I wanted.

The folks in Ms. Chan’s campaign headquarters said they would have no comment on why Mr. Perata’s endorsement had been taken off their campaign website or on whether or not Mr. Perata had withdrawn his endorsement, and suggested I should call Mr. Perata’s office (see paragraph, above, about my call to Mr. Perata’s office). That sounded like a confirmation from the Chan campaign that they’d lost the endorsement, for whatever reason, and I thought that settled the matter.

A few days later, however, I saw one of Ms. Chan’s campaign staffers at a press conference and was talking about the situation, and was told something different. There had been some “confusion” about the Perata endorsement, they said, whatever that meant, and they had pulled Mr. Perata’s name from their endorsement list while they were “checking” with the Senator’s office to “straighten it out.”

In other words, the Perata-Chan endorsement might still be in play.

And sure enough, last Friday, the weekend before the election, comes a mailer in my box entitled “Don Perata Sets The Record Straight About the Senate Race” containing an undated “personal message” from Mr. Perata to Oakland neighbors saying that “I am writing personally to ask your vote for Wilma Chan to represent Oakland in the state senate, on Tuesday, June 3.”

To which the Hancock camp cried foul.

On Saturday comes an email blast from Hancock campaign manager Terri Waller, saying that ‘the Chan campaign [just] sent out a blatantly dishonest last-minute letter purportedly signed by Senator Don Perata stating that he supports Wilma Chan for state senate. In fact, Senator Perata supports Loni Hancock. Senator Perata called Loni on Friday afternoon to let her know he was furious that Ms. Chan had sent out this bogus letter.”

One would think that Mr. Perata, who is able to get on television pretty much when he wants to, would use this opportunity to set the record straight that Ms. Hancock’s campaign said was made crooked by the Perata-Chan endorsement letter mailer.

He didn’t use the media. Instead, on Monday, comes one of those robo-calls on my voicemail message, recorded by Mr. Perata, saying that he was “calling to set things straight for Tuesday’s election. Please join me in supporting Loni Hancock for Senate.”

Except, because there never had been any question whether Mr. Perata was supporting Ms. Hancock, that didn’t actually set things straight at all. What was at issue was whether Mr. Perata was still supporting Ms. Chan as well. About that, the State Senator was silent in his call. Was the endorsement letter sent out by Ms. Chan’s campaign “bogus,” as Ms. Hancock’s campaign was charging? At least before the election was over, the voters of Senate District 9 never got it straight.

If this were merely the last act of a soon-to-be retiring politician trying to get his final bit of time in the media spotlight before bowing out of the public scene, this would qualify as an amusing story, and nothing else. But there is a bit more at stake here. If you believe the talk, Mr. Perata continues to have his eyes on the position of mayor of Oakland, with plans to run as early as 2010, when Mayor Ron Dellums first term is being completed. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson—who seems to have an inside track in the Perata camp—wrote last February that the Oakland mayoral seat might be a “good fit” for Mr. Perata.

If the public is having a hard time figuring out such a simple thing as whether or not Mr. Perata is endorsing Ms. Chan or Ms. Hancock or both as his successor in the 9th District Senate seat—something which could easily be cleared up by a single, unambiguous statement from Mr. Perata—can you imagine how much confusion Oakland would be in for if the State Senator were to be elected as mayor?

If Mr. Perata were to be elected as Oakland mayor—either in 2010 or beyond—he would find, as have other legislators who have transitioned over to local mayoral seats, that it’s a difficult transition, largely because of the heightened level of public scrutiny that is met on the local level. Mr. Dellums (U.S. Congress), Mayor Tom Bates of Berkeley (state legislature), and former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris (state legislature) all had to make the adjustment.

On the surface, it would seem as if the higher the office, the higher the scrutiny, and so members of Congress and the California legislature would have a greater public spotlight on them than a mayor or City Councilmember. But that’s not true, at least not on day-to-day issues. On the big ticket items—war votes or restructuring of health care, for example—Congressmembers and State Senators and State Assemblymembers get an intense spotlight shown on them, what positions they take, and how they ultimately vote. But on most issues, even controversial issues, legislators are able to avoid the public eye of back home constituents.

An example.

On Monday of this week, the Sacramento Bee published a story about the introduction of new California legislation on bacteria testing on raw milk in the state. “A Central Valley lawmaker plans to introduce a bill that would overturn new state health regulations that a Kerman dairy has been fighting for months,” the Bee reported. “The proposal by state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, comes just a week after a Superior Court judge upheld the new standard, designed to promote cleanliness at the state's two raw milk dairies. The legislation, to be co-authored by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland [emphasis added], would eliminate bacteria limits that treat raw milk like pasteurized milk. Instead, labs would test more for disease-causing pathogens such as E. coli. The bill is supported by the dairies but is likely to face resistance from farm regulators … Regulators say the [raw milk bacteria] limit [imposed by the new state regulations] ensures cleanliness and that dirty dairies are more likely to breed pathogens.”

I don’t know whether the new state raw milk bacteria standards are needed, or whether the bill sponsored by Mr. Florez and Mr. Perata would make raw milk unsafe. But knowing how much dust was stirred up recently in local City Councils in the East Bay by local citizens over the state’s proposed moth spray program, one would guess that if the local public knew that there was a move in the legislature to change the inspection standards for bacteria in California milk, folks would want to have a bit of a say in it, and would want to ask Mr. Perata to explain himself and his position on the issue.

If the local public knew.

As far as I can see, however, the story was not covered in the San Francisco Chronicle or the Oakland Tribune or the Tribune’s affiliate East Bay papers, a normal practice. The Chronicle and the Tribune’s parent company don’t maintain a Sacramento bureau, and so little of what our elected representatives do in the state legislature gets reported back to us.

There is another distinct difference between the scrutiny officeholders get in the state legislature and what they get in City Hall.

Unless it is political junkies who turn on the California Channel to watch legislative deliberations, or special interest groups (I say this without using this as a pejorative, but only as a description) who travel to Sacramento to lobby for or against particular legislation or budget items, the day-to-day operations of the California State Legislature are rarely, if ever, witnessed by the public. That is far different from what happens in City Council. In Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, San Leandro, Richmond, and all points in between and beyond, a core of citizens regularly attends and monitors both the general City Council meetings, as well as the meetings of most Council committees. In addition, local citizens keep up with the weekly or bi-weekly Council agendas, including downloading many of the online backup materials and actually reading them, with some local bloggers reviewing and dissecting the mix. (Unfortunately, while the Berkeley Daily Planet covers week-to-week activities in Berkeley City government, including the mayor’s office and City Council, neither the Chronicle nor the Tribune nor any other media outlet—with the sole exception of the East Bay News Service’s Sanjiv Handa—covers such activities in Oakland City government, but that’s another issue.)

Would Mr. Perata be a “good fit” in the Oakland mayor’s office, as my good friend, Mr. Johnson, submits? Perhaps Oakland voters will get a chance, soon, to weigh in on that issue, as there is every indication that Mr. Perata is making plans to run for that office in 2010, whether or not Mr. Dellums stands to run for re-election. But then again, there was every indication that Mr. Perata endorsed Ms. Chan to be his successor in the District 9 Senate seat in Tuesday’s election. Or didn’t endorse Ms. Chan. Or endorsed Ms. Chan and Ms. Hancock, simultaneously.


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