Monday, May 12, 2008

Parsing Perata requires deeper look

SACRAMENTO — Perhaps sensing that few in the media would accept his explanation at face value for why he was dropping his bid to remove a Republican colleague from office, Senate leader Don Perata declared pre-emptively "there was no quid pro quo."

It was an interesting insight into the Oakland Democrat's thinking of how he's viewed: that anything he does must have an ulterior motive and must be plumbed for deeper meaning.

Among the curious onlookers at the surreal scene — on the steps of the Capitol, after hours and put together in a matter of 20 minutes after a cryptic advisory was sent out — were a handful of Democratic legislative staff members who were themselves trying to make sense of Perata's abrupt decision to back down from the recall drive he launched against Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, for voting against last year's budget.

"What do you think this is really about?" one staff member asked.

No simple explanation could cover the range of possibilities tied to his decision, though Perata tried. He insisted that the only reason he gave up the recall bid — for which he and the state Democratic party had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars — was so that he could enter upcoming budget negotiations without a partisan cloud looming.

It may be true, said political observers, that Republicans were telling Perata at every opportunity that the recall was a major obstacle to resolving the budget Advertisementcrisis. But, it's also true, they said, that the recall was headed for a big defeat, a prospect that Perata insisted had no bearing on his decision.

"Why doesn't he say it?" asked Garry South, a Democratic political consultant. "Hey, you got to paste the high-principled patina on even the most political of actions. He's probably being realistic (in anticipating skepticism). He's known as a dealmaker, a powerbroker. He has a certain leadership style that's somewhat old school. He is intriguing, and somewhat inscrutable."

Using the importance of budget negotiations was a "convenient, graceful way out" of explaining a potentially "embarrassing" loss at the polls, said Larry Gerston, political science professor at San Jose State.

But Perata's explanation strained credulity, Gerston said, given the fact that the budget deficit, in the billions, was understood as a crisis before the "Dump Denham" campaign even turned in signatures to get the recall on the ballot.

"If his main concern is the budget, he knew about the budget problems when the recall was started," Gerston said. "If that's his reason, it begs the question of, why did the recall begin in the first place? All these things don't add up."

Perata said the gravity of the state's finances didn't hit him until recent conversations he had with state Treasurer Bill Lockyer and state Controller John Chiang.

Perata's decision to drop the recall bid shows his political flexibility, said Democratic strategist Darry Sragow.

"I'm told it was unlikely to succeed, that it was an expensive uphill climb," Sragow said. "The prospects were not looking particularly good, coupled with the need to get Republican votes on the budget, so it made perfectly good sense to pull the plug. I think he gets credit for being flexible.

"He's a political leader who plays chess pretty well," Sragow added. "He can think in complex terms and several moves ahead."

Too often, however, he plows ahead with his political agenda, critics say, without regard to consequence.

"Millions of dollars have been wasted and public attention has been distracted from critically important issues by a recall attempt that's been seen as a personal vendetta," said Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring. "How Perata ultimately reconciles that with his own legacy will be interesting to see. But clearly this was seen widely as an abuse of power and an abuse of the process."

Being a leader has taken a toll on Perata, once a government teacher who rose to the top of the Oakland political machine before arriving in Sacramento in 1996. The cloud of an influence-peddling FBI investigation has hovered over him for his entire tenure as leader. He had to withstand withering criticism, and was made a poster child for power-hungry politicians, for making sure Proposition 93, the term limits extension ballot measure, would have applied to him. He is under investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission for possible campaign finance violations.

But through it all, observers said, he has proved his durability by remaining Senate leader.

"He's the seasoned politician who's seen it all," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Sacramento State. "He's played the game well."

Still, he may not have been up for the two-pronged fight that Republicans were vowing — at the polls and the negotiating table.

"What do you do if you're Don Perata? He needs to leave some kind of legacy, so he had to cry uncle," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the University of Southern California. "Or an already battered image would be more battered. It certainly wasn't out of the goodness of his heart that he pulled the recall off the table."

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