If it's good to be the Don, it's also good to be a friend of the Don's. State Senate prez-elect Don Perata heads into his new job as the second most powerful politician in the state with a rep for being generous to family, friends, and allies. Rather than go into all those tired old tales about Perata steering campaign business to his son and college buddy, Feeder is gonna tell you a story about the Don you haven't heard yet.
Not too long ago -- Friday, July 23, to be exact -- local philanthropist and concert promoter Danny Scher was in a pinch. Someone had tipped off the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control that Scher was going to hold a concert fund-raiser for Berkeley's Jazzschool in the backyard of his Kensington home that evening and planned to serve booze. ABC district administrator Andrew Gomez says he called Scher and told him he'd need a one-day permit for the alcohol. To get one, though, Gomez informed Scher he'd need written approval from the local law enforcement agency, the Kensington PD in this case. This would all have to be done before 5 p.m., when government bureaucrats turn into off-the-clock pumpkins. Literally hours away from his $150-a-head gala, the host now faced the real possibility that he'd have to plug the wine spigot for his paying guests.
Scher immediately ran into a bureaucratic brick wall. Kensington Police Chief Barry Garfield was on vacation, and his underlings refused to sign off on a booze permit without his consent. Scher needed help from someone who could short-circuit the bureaucratic BS.
Senator Perata had come to Scher's aid in the past, so why not now? In May 2003, Perata introduced SB 952, a bill designed to let Scher hold large-scale charitable and political fund-raisers at his home in spite of local opposition. Once upon a time, Scher was VP for Bill Graham Presents, and is credited for getting the Shoreline Amphitheatre built. A couple of years ago, the now-retired promoter began holding occasional musical fund-raisers for charities in his 250-seat backyard amphitheater. Some of his neighbors complained about noise and traffic from the events -- even though he hosted only two or three a year -- and argued that the concerts were inappropriate for a quiet residential neighborhood. County officials agreed and told Scher he needed a special-use permit for the events. Scher, however, said he didn't need no stinkin' permit. He pleaded his case to his old friend Lindy Graham, an aide to Perata, who agreed that Scher was being unfairly singled out. Thus SB 952 was born, though it later stalled in committee. In the meantime, Scher has continued to defy county land-use regulators by holding more concerts.
With time running out for the Jazzschool fund-raiser, Perata personally got on the horn to Contra Costa Sheriff Warren Rupf. Now, strictly speaking, Kensington is not the sheriff's jurisdiction, and cops are protective of their turf. If Rupf intervened, he'd be stepping on Chief Garfield's toes, but, well, when the likely leader of the state Senate asks you to do something, you do it. So Rupf had an underling take the highly unusual step of calling the ABC to give the event the blessing of the sheriff. ABC's Gomez recalls reminding the sheriff's representative that Kensington wasn't his jurisdiction: "He said, 'I know, but [this is] for the senator.'" Through a spokesman, Rupf defended his actions as "absolutely lawful."
Meanwhile, Chief Garfield says Perata also personally called the Kensington police. That lit a fire under their asses to track down their vacationing boss, who instructed his sergeant to okay the booze permit. Scher got his permit at 4:30 p.m. The event went off as planned, netting $25,000 for the Jazzschool, Scher says. Perata himself even made a guest appearance.
A nagging question persists: Why is one of the state's most powerful men going out of his way to help Scher? Perata doesn't even represent Kensington anymore, so he isn't helping a constituent. Neither Perata nor his press aide called to offer an explanation by Feeder's deadline. Being the cynical-reporter type, Feeder assumed Scher had either given money or raised cash for Perata in the past. But that's not the case. Scher says he hasn't donated a penny to Perata. "I've never offered," he says, "and he's never asked."
But to paraphrase Marlon Brando in what is likely one of Perata's fave films -- the senator has a life-size poster of Tony Soprano in his office, or used to -- "Mr. Scher, there may come a day when the Don will ask you to return his favors. This day may never come, but, well, it probably will. Capisce?"
MoveOn in, for Now In two weeks, Scher plans to host what might be the biggest fund-raising bash at his home yet: A benefit for MoveOn.org's political action committee with performances by country-music star Bonnie Raitt, bluesman Taj Mahal, and political comic Will Durst (who has freelanced for the Express). Rumor has it Sean Penn might even attend the September 12 event. Tickets range from $250 to $2,000, and Scher hopes to raise $250,000 to help defeat George W. Bush in November. P> This being the East Bay, many folks living near Scher, even his critics, are sympathetic to the political cause. Take Marilyn Stollon, an employment counselor and energy healer. She fears that if Scher gets his way, others will follow with large-scale events in quiet neighborhoods. At the same time, she's a member of MoveOn and plans to vote for John Kerry. "When I heard it was an event for Kerry, I thought, 'Oh, shoot, he needs it,'" she says. "I'm very torn." Nonetheless, Stollon says she sent an e-mail to the Berkeley-based 527 group warning that Republicans will seize the opportunity to make MoveOn and Kerry look bad. Why? Because it's an illegal event, she says.
Scher disagrees, but there is no denying that county building officials already have issued him a $100 fine for his July 23 Jazzschool gig. A code inspector who eavesdropped on the concert noted that more than two hundred people attended, and that he saw commercial trucks delivering video and audio equipment, portable toilets, and catered food. The inspector concluded "that the use of the backyard stage and amphitheater for musical concerts ... is unlawful and a public nuisance" in the Kensington residential neighborhood.
If county officials deemed the last concert illegal, it stands to reason that they would view the upcoming concert similarly. And that would cast a negative shadow over the event.
Carrie Olson, chief operating officer for MoveOn, says the nonprofit has had little to do with the fund-raiser. While MoveOn is the beneficiary, she notes, the organization isn't hosting, promoting, or organizing it. "It's not our event, it's Danny Scher's," she says. Olson, however, acknowledged that she was concerned that the controversy might reflect badly on MoveOn. She said people who independently organize benefits for the org should comply with local laws and permit requirements, and noted that, in other places, bake sales for MoveOn had to be cancelled when organizers couldn't get permits to sell their cookies.
Scher, meanwhile, tells Feeder he plans to appeal the Jazzschool fine. "The basis for my appeal is that if everyone else can do a charitable fund-raiser at their house, then so can I," he says. "The vast majority of the neighbors think this is much ado about nothing." So, in case you hadn't guessed, the amphitheater owner plans to, ahem, move on with his political shindig.
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