Inside Don Perata’s mayoral election defeat

So former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata – who entered Oakland’s mayoral race with big-time name recognition and fundraising prowess, and who outspent all his rivals enormously – lost the race to City Councilmember Jean Quan. He conceded this morning.

This was Oakland’s first foray into ranked-choice voting, and there were 10 candidates in the field. Perata held the lead in every elimination round until the last, when City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan was cut and her supporters’ second and third choices broke almost three-to-one in Quan’s favor, catapulting her past Perata to win.

In the end, Perata’s somewhat polarizing personality and past may have proved to be his undoing, as many had predicted could happen. People tend to either love him or hate him, with not many in between; those who love him were quick to name him their top choice, and the rest were much less likely to write him in somewhere below.

John Whitehurst, a longtime Perata consultant who was one of three paid by the mayoral campaign, was still shaking his head later Thursday, and basically said his only mistake was not attacking Quan and Kaplan more.

“It’s still hard for me to swallow the fact that we won by 11,000 votes, 10 percent of the vote, and the person that won the election lost in 80 percent of the precincts,” he said.

But Perata didn’t “win” by 11,000 votes – he finished that far ahead in the first round, putting him nowhere close to the 50 percent mark he’d have had to exceed to win outright.

“The purpose of the ranked-choice voting was to make the campaigns shorter, less expensive and less negative and all three turned out to be completely false,” Whitehurst complained, saying that all the new method accomplished was to turn the election into an episode of the reality television show “Survivor,” in which candidates had to build alliances to outlast their rivals.

“Hindsight is always 20-20, and if I were to run the election again, I would’ve gone negative on Jean and negative on Rebecca the way that they went negative on Don,” he continued, noting none of Perata’s campaign literature attacked his rivals.

He acknowledged there were direct mail pieces sent out by independent expenditure committees that attacked Quan, but he said that of a dozen mailings that Quan sent out, 10 attacked Perata in some way.

“We invested a ton of money in field operations,” Whitehurst said. “Jean pretty hypocritically today said hers was a grassroots campaign, but she didn’t have a grassroots campaign, she put out 12 pieces of mail of which 10 were negative.”

Some might find it hard to see how Perata – who outspent Quan by far – was more “grassroots” than Quan, who had a smaller bankroll but still had a substantial number of volunteers pounding the pavement for her. Asked why Perata was paying three different consultants for the same campaign, Whitehurst replied he was only paid about $1,000 per month.

“I was cheaper for that campaign than a basic field organizer was, so don’t go there,” he said. “A campaign that does not have organizers is not a serious grassroots campaign.”

Whitehurst said he believes this outcome will sour Oakland’s electorate on ranked-choice voting. “This is the first time that instant-runoff voting has produced this result. It happened in San Francisco too, and I think you might see people taking another look at the system now that, in three elections, the first place winner didn’t win the race.”

“I think less than 5 percent of the people understand ranked-choice voting; walk outside the office and ask somebody how it works, I don’t think they’ll know,” he charged. “Choosing a leader is not about a game of ‘Survivor’ on TV, y’know? It’s just not.”

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.

  • anne spanier

    Don Perata got 11,000 more votes (33%) of the first round votes. That is simply all of the people who wanted him as mayor. That is not 50%. Jean Quan got 24% of the first round, but she got 75% of Rebecca Kaplan’s second votes. People who wanted Kaplan wanted Jean more than Don and that is the simple fact. Thirty six percent is not enough. A runoff was run on the subsequent tallies unti a 50% winner came through. It is so simple, it boggles the mind that the Perata people “don’t get it.”

  • John W

    Ranked voting strikes me as “rank” voting. Too much room for gamesmanship that’s not transparent to the typical voter. I’m surprised it’s even legal. It might be an okay system for picking the president of the local PTA but not for constitutional offices. I’m not sad Perata lost, but I’d be pretty upset if I were one of his supporters.

  • John W

    Ann Spanier,

    I’m old fashioned. If nobody gets 50%, do a runoff election between the top two. Saving money and time is not a good reason to use this convoluted method of voting. Perata probably would have lost a straight run-off election too. Fine, but at least it’s straight-forward. You can’t make assumptions about where those second and third choice votes would go in a one-on-one runoff.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Wow, Perata’s spokesmen really capture the sour, entitled, machine-politics attitude the candidate conveyed. They are bitter, whiny and blaming everybody but the candidate.

    The reality: Perata is corrupt and callous, and represents a very narrow base of billionaire developers. If you think that helping them would, trickle-down style, benefit Oakland, than you hold your nose and vote for him.

    When the Tribune interviewed him, they wrote that he was completely ignorant of the issues facing Oakland. He claims he doesn’t even understand the ranked voting system — like his ignorance is a badge of integrity?

    Perata, like Meg Whitman, figured that you could just buy the election. Whether Jean Quan turns out to be a great mayor or Jerry Brown a great governor, I for one am glad to see that you can win major elections while spending a LOT less money. Since it doesn’t appear we are ever going to have meaningful campaign finance restrictions in this country (see: recent Supreme Court decisions), it is nice to know democracy can still play into our choice of officials.

  • Jim Ratliff

    The continued cluelessness of Perata and his team is astounding. Whitehurst complains that “the first place winner didn’t win the race.” Does he even realize that, before RCV, Oakland would have had a runoff if no candidate got more than 50% of the vote? The whole point of a runoff is that it’s not democratic (i.e., majority rule) to automatically give the office to a candidate who gets more first-place votes, if that’s less than a majority. That Perata lost has nothing to do with RCV or with anything new. The older runoff system would have provided the same result, only more slowly and more expensively.

  • Jason

    Sometimes it pays to know the rules completely and use those rules to your advantage. In this case it seems like Quan did just that while Perata ran a traditional campaign that is meant for winner take all formats. Maybe he could have consolidate enough votes to be Quan in a runoff but it doesn’t seem likely. His consultants probably should have tried to make sure he was a solid second choice since that’s what would have made him mayor. It seems like less of a Quan victory as it is a consultant oversight that caused Perata to focus on only one aspect of the campaign.

  • rosa

    Perhaps Don Perata’s defeat was just the Bay Area’s quirky version of “anti-incumbent” sentiment.

    For the past 20 years, Oakland seems to have just been a dumping ground for out-to-pasture state or congressional politicians–from Elihu Harris to Jerry Brown to Ron Dellums.

  • John W

    If you gave a quiz to a representative cross-section of Oakland voters, I wonder how many could explain how the votes are calculated in the various rounds under the instant run-off system and how the way they vote 1, 2 and 3 affects the outcome. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Perata’s 31% is all he was ever going to get under either this system or the traditional way of doing elections. But that’s a big assumption. If people in Oakland and SF want this convoluted system, God bless. Just don’t export it to where I live or to statewide voting.

  • Truthclubber

    Re #3:

    Then you are in favor of a runoff between McNerney and Harmer, no? Neither of them got 50%+1 in this election, right?

    Put up or shut up, senor…since you know what the outcome would be with all those AIP votes going to one candidate over another.

  • John W

    Re #9

    Truthclubber — Actually no. My point is that, if you do have a runoff to get somebody to a majority, then the Oakand and SF system is not the way to do it, in my opinion. If Congressional races required somebody to get a majority, then I would favor a one-on-one approach between the top two, not ranked voting. However, unlike the Mayor’s race in Oakland, House and Senate seats don’t have that requirement. But they will in California due to the open primary system that will eliminate all but the top two for the general election. Harmer might well have won under that scenario, assuming he and McNerney were the survivors in the open primary.

  • Truthclubber

    Re #10:

    So when (not if) Harmer runs against McNerney in 2012 (and he will, since Romney will be running against Obama), you’ll be in favor of making sure that only those two (and not the AIP candidate, since they WILL win the #1 and #2 spots due to the new open primary rules forced through despite Demogog opposition) show up on the November 2012 ballot for the CD11 seat, yes?

    Just checkin’…to see if your words are consistent from one post to the next.

  • John W


    Nice try, but I never stated an opinion on majority vs plurality elections; only about the ranked voting system. Nonpartisan primaries in CA will make the 2012 general election for Congress a 2-person race regardless of what I think. You seem to be overlooking how redistricting and the end of gerrymandering will affect things in 2012. Harmer’s strength was in San Joaquin County, which I’m guessing won’t even be in the same district as Pleasanton, San Ramon, Danville and other parts of the current CD-11. Until we know what the districts are, who can say who will be running against whom, let alone who might be favored to win? Garamendi and McNerney may find parts of their current districts joined together. If Harmer loses this time and wants to make a fourth run for Congress, that’s his choice. He’s been trying since 1996, so he has lots of practice. As for Romney, early indications are that the Tea Party part of the GOP will not stand for him, since “Obamacare” was based on “Romneycare.”

  • Tom Benigno

    Practice does not necessarily make perfit, when it comes to winning elections.

  • steve weir

    Talk about changing political dynamics.

    Two things to consider for the 2012 partisan primary. First, reapportionment will (or should) be completed by the new Redistricting Commission, with the prospects that more districts will be competitive. Second, because of Prop 14 (June 2010 Ballot), only the top two vote getters from the primary will face off in November. All voters, regardless of party, will receive the same ballot in the Primary, with the exception of President and County Central Committees.

    (So you could have two R’s in one runoff and two D’s in another. You will not have a write-in option, and most likely, no minor party candidate will make the top two.)

    For those of you watching the formation of the Redistricting Commission, the field has been reduced to 36. The State Auditor will soon select 8 (three D’s, three R’s and 2 others. These 8 will select the final 6 and must yield 5 D’s, 5 R’s, and 4 non D & R’s.

  • John W

    Re: 14 Steve Weir

    Should be fun. After redistricting, especially one as major as CA will experience, you often find incumbents of the same party forced to compete over newly drawn districts. However, with Propl 14, who knows how this will play out, since primaries will be everybody against everybody, regardless of party? Prop. 14 could be a statewide variation on ranked-choice voting, in that a strong third party candidate might do a “Perata,” teaming up with somebody to knock off a presumed front-runner. A David Christenson-type might not make it to the general election but could still be a big factor in the open primary gamesmanship.

  • Charles

    Quan is a mayor-elect without a mandate. All her first, second, and third choice votes amount to 44% of the 122,000 voters.