Perata’s campaigns overlap in Oakland

My friend Bob Gammon of the East Bay Express had an interesting piece today about how former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata seems to be benefitting from some – ahem – synergy between a statewide ballot measure he’s pushing and his Oakland mayoral bid.

I’d noticed it too: a mailer went out recently urging support for the ballot measure, which would raise tobacco taxes to fund cancer research. It went addressed to “Dear Fellow Oakland Voter.” And it went out with Perata’s photo and name all over it.

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Gammon, the duke of Perata-watchers from waaay back, notes:

Perata’s use of the cancer-measure committee’s funds in this manner makes little sense unless his true aim is to boost his mayoral campaign, experts say. Indeed, the cancer-research initiative, which would raise taxes on cigarettes, hasn’t even qualified for the ballot yet. Doug Heller, executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, which keeps close tabs on the state’s initiative process, noted that the proposition will probably face potent opposition from Big Tobacco because it proposes to raise California cigarette taxes by $1 a pack. In other words, it’s foolhardy, Heller said, to spend money now on a local mailer when the tobacco industry will spend millions in the summer and fall attempting to kill the initiative. “Every dollar will be precious in this campaign,” Heller said.

Campaign finance reports also indicate that Perata is muddying the waters between the cancer-research measure and his mayoral campaign in ways that raise legal and ethical questions. Under California law, it is illegal for a candidate to use funds from a statewide ballot-measure committee with no contribution limits to support a campaign for an office that does have donation limits. Nonetheless, Perata has hired at least three consultants to work on both campaigns, raising questions as to whether they are being paid by the cancer-research committee to work on his mayoral campaign, in violation of state law.

I talked this evening with Perata spokesman Jason Kinney.

“I don’t know about the number (of mailers), but I know it went to all voters in the November 2008 election in Oakland,” he told me, saying they’re “the people he (Perata) knows best” after representing them for so long in the Legislature and, before that, on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

Perata has done the same – targeting Oakland first with mailings urging support for certain statewide ballot measures – in the past, Kinney noted. He said the Bay Area tends to be both a rich hunting ground for the petition signatures needed to put a measure on the ballot, and also a place packed with liberal voters more likely to support tax increases for what they see as just causes.

Of course, he wasn’t running a concurrent campaign for Oakland mayor when he was stumping for those other measures. And he hadn’t paid his longtime political lieutenant, Oakland City Councilman Ignacio de la Fuente, a hefty consulting fee on those earlier measures, either.

Kinney said Gammon’s story was “fairly insulting to Don personally” because funding cancer research long has been a cause “near and dear to his heart” – both his parents died of cancer, and he and several staffers are survivors.

So when it came time to raise awareness for this measure, “he started in Oakland, where his base is,” Kinney said. Future mailers will go elsewhere around the Bay Area, he added, and will be handed out at farmers’ markets, churches and other public gathering places across the region.

Perata always has been a grandmaster both at raising a lot of money and at shuffling it among his many committees and causes, yet a years-long FBI probe turned up no criminal activity and Fair Political Practice Commission investigations have brought nothing more than the occasional slap on the wrist or outright dismissal. He knows how to use the system to his advantage.

How Oakland voters feel about that remains to be seen.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.