Sunday, November 30, 2008

A tale of two Peratas

For Don Perata, it truly has been the best of times and the worst of times.

The Oakland lawmaker's four years as state Senate president pro tem, arguably California's most powerful elected Democrat, showed much of the ambition that had fueled the one-time schoolteacher's climb from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to the Assembly to the Senate.

Now, term-limited out of office, he'll leave the Capitol for a consulting stint and perhaps a run for Oakland mayor in 2010. In retrospect, his pro tem tenure yields moments that made him and his supporters either stand up and cheer or cringe and wince.

The Best of Times

5. Standing against the Governator: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's cigar-smoking, back-slapping, larger-than-life personality often brought people around to his way of thinking, at least in his first years in office. But it never got far with Perata, whom the Associated Press this year dubbed Schwarzenegger's "most consistent foil in the state Legislature" on issues from health care to water policy to state intervention in poorly performing school districts.

4. Remembering his roots: While serving the state as pro tem, Perata stayed atop issues important to his district, authoring or co-authoring laws extending his own earlier crackdown on dangerous "sideshow" car activity; providing more rights to homeowners facing foreclosure while curbing neighborhood blight; creating a voluntary program to monitor Californians' Advertisementexposure to toxic chemicals; and creating a discount prescription drug program.

3. Building bridges: Perata helped hammer out a deal between warring legislative factions and Schwarzenegger on how to finish building and paying for the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, settling years of disputes over what the bridge would look like and who would foot the bill.

2. Building a machine: Like it or not, Perata's pro tem tenure helped cement his place at the top of a significant political machine. Local acolytes — "Peratistas" — have included Oakland City Council President Ignacio de la Fuente, Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan, Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson and many others. And Perata has flexed his muscle across the state through a network of political committees.

1. Investing in the future: Working with Schwarzenegger soon after having railed against the governor's 2005 special-election agenda, Perata helped build and push through the Legislature five bond measures to improve California's roads, mass transit, affordable housing, levees, ports and schools. Voters in November 2006 approved the biggest infrastructure bond package in California's history, a $37 billion example of bipartisan cooperation yielding long-term planning and investment.

The Worst of Times

5. Locksmith lobbying: Perata in 2007 had the locks changed on three Democratic senators' offices, retaliating for their attendance at a moderate, business-friendly caucus meeting against his orders; he let them back in after stern tongue lashings. Similarly, he booted a Democratic senator from the Budget Committee this year for daring to disagree with him on education funding. Message sent: If power doesn't work, try petulance.

4. Recall snafu: Perata this year launched and bankrolled an effort to recall state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, ostensibly because of Denham's voting record but really to help push Senate Democrats closer to the two-thirds majority needed to pass budget and tax bills. With the campaign struggling weeks before the election, Perata suddenly walked away, claiming more important fish to fry. Denham beat the recall with 77 percent of the vote, leaving him to say he'd beat back the state's top elected Democrat and leaving Perata with nothing to show for it except a big payday for his favorite campaign consultants.

3. Campaign cash questions: Accusations of links between campaign contributions and legislative acts;, of a particularly lavish lifestyle bankrolled by such contributions, and of a virtual shell game of moving big money among various committees he controls have left Perata dogged by claims of pay-to-play politics that diverted attention from his policy agenda. And that led to"...

2. Operating under a cloud: Federal corruption investigations never die, they just fade away; the only way Perata will ever know for sure whether the FBI's probe — uncovered just as he became pro tem — has ended is if he's indicted. At issue is whether Perata took kickbacks or bribes for official favors, perhaps via a network of family, friends and associates. Agents have searched his house and his son's, witnesses have testified before a federal grand jury, and dozens of subpoenas issued to public agencies and private companies have yielded reams of documents. Nobody has been charged, but Perata's legal defense fund has spent at least about $1.82 million.

1. Leaving jobs undone: California's $28 billion deficit through this fiscal year and the next signifies that the state's structural deficit, which predated Perata's tenure, will outlast it, too. Perata spoke often of the need to overhaul the budget process, to raise revenues that meet the state's needs, to abolish the two-thirds budget vote requirement. None of it happened on his watch, nor did the health-care reform he'd sought.

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