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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.”