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War Chest, But No Contest
Don Perata has never had to watch his back. The core cities of his Ninth Senate District Alameda, Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond are so politically homogeneous that Republican opposition is little more than a joke. According to the secretary of state's most recent voter registration statistics, Democrats outnumber Republicans in Perata's district 59.1 percent to 13.7 percent. "You can kiss off the chance of any Republican ever winning in that district," said Bruce Cain, a political science professor and director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. In fact, none of the no-name GOP candidates who have run against Perata over the years has ever managed to win more than 16 percent of the vote.
The only place a Democrat can lose is in the Democratic primary. "The primary is everything," Cain said. But not for Perata: Because he is a powerful incumbent, the state senator gets a free pass. Since 1998, not a single East Bay Democrat has dared to take him on. "No one is that stupid," Cain noted.
As a result, Perata doesn't have to campaign for reelection, and thus doesn't have the typical campaign expenses. Television, newspaper, and radio ads are unnecessary, and glossy mailers are relatively rare. Yet few in state politics rival him as a fund-raiser. From January 2000 through December 2006, he collected at least $3.72 million for his personal reelection campaigns. That doesn't include the $37.31 million raised by more than a dozen political action committees he's been associated with during that period.
So why does Perata need so much cash? Kinney, his spokesman, maintained that being a master fund-raiser is part of "the mandatory job description" of becoming and remaining a legislative leader. "The senate president is expected to be an aggressive fund-raiser," he said.
Indeed, Perata, like other political leaders, has used a significant portion of his campaign funds over the years to get his allies elected, thereby establishing and maintaining his power. He also has used his campaign cash to employ close friends and family members. But culling through more than two thousand pages of the state senator's campaign finance disclosures made it clear that Perata diverts a sizeable portion of his war chest toward extravagant expenditures.
In the 2000 general election, for example, Perata squared off against an unknown Republican named Linda Marshall, who received just 11.5 percent of the vote, compared to his 83.4 percent. Mounting a real campaign against Marshall would have been overkill, so Perata was awash in cash after the election.
And what did he do? He embarked on a massive spending spree. From late October through the end of that year, Perata dined three times at BayWolf, including one meal that cost $2,419. He took a trip to the Napa Valley wine country and dined at Tra Vigne in St. Helena ($1,199) and Rings Steak, Seafood and Chops in Napa ($199). He also enjoyed a $500 dinner at Trader Vic's in Emeryville, and spent $2,226 at Lalime's in Berkeley. He spent $1,329 at the Claremont Resort and Spa, and $2,134 at the Embassy Suites in Napa. He shelled out $475 on coffee and $846 on wine. He bought $168 worth of sports memorabilia, and spent $2,500 at Bullock's department store in Sacramento. And, of course, he cut a $43,600 check for an afternoon in the Raiders luxury box.
In little more than two months, Perata burned through $123,606 of campaign cash on these expenditures. The post-election binge made 2000 his top year of the past ten for such expenses $193,195 in all.
The runner-up, not coincidentally, was another election year, 2004. That fall, as legislators up and down the state were locked in expensive races, Perata sat atop a mountainous war chest looking down on Patricia Deutsche, a Republican few had heard of. Without breaking a sweat, Perata trounced her 77.1 percent to 15.6 percent. He had so little respect for Deutsche, in fact, that he started his partying well before November.
From July through September of that year, Perata racked up $82,802 in lifestyle spending, representing more than half the year's total of $156,966. Within those three months, he ate twice at Biba, one of Sacramento's best restaurants one of the meals cost $2,418. He dined at Chops Steak House ($334), twice at Esquire Bar and Grill ($662), and once at the Riverside Clubhouse ($165), all in Sacramento. Rather than walk precincts, he jetted at least twice to Los Angeles, checking into the Millennium Biltmore Hotel ($197) and the Beverly Hilton ($658).
Perata capped his pre-election spree with a $50,000 charter flight with Komar Aviation of Santa Ana. The state senator offered no explanation in his expense reports of where he went or whom he took with him, but it must have been one helluva party. According to an Orange County Register story a year later, Komar charges $10,626 to fly eight people from Los Angeles to Aspen. Perata's bill was nearly five times that.
Some people who know him say Don Perata has always preferred an intimate rendezvous with the rich and powerful to a giant cocktail party fund-raiser. "If it's a large group, he'll either show up and say a few words and leave or never show up at all," noted a knowledgeable Sacramento source. "But if it's a small group, he enjoys it and will stay the whole time."
These exclusive affairs are where the Senate's president pro tem spends much of his campaign cash, plotting the future of California politics. Campaign finance laws do not require Perata to disclose the names of his companions, but judging from his expense reports they're the kind of men and women who regularly enjoy a top-shelf filet mignon and perfectly aged Cabernet Sauvignon.
Among Perata's favorite restaurants are Biba and Morton's of Chicago Steakhouse, generally regarded as two of the best in Sacramento. Since 1997, his combined tabs at the two eateries have totaled at least $13,710. Closer to home, the son of an Italian immigrant prefers Oliveto Cafe and Restaurant in Rockridge. The 2006 Zagat Survey rates it as the East Bay's best Italian restaurant and among the top ten of all restaurants in the area. In the past ten years, Perata has spent at least $6,932 there.
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