Until their breakup, Frank Wishom and Lily Hu were one of Oakland's most recognizable power couples. Recognizable, in part, because they were an unusual-looking pair: He was a six-foot-four, 240-pound African American who played football in high school, while she was a petite brainiac from Taiwan, fifteen years his junior. They also were movers and shakers around town. He was a well-known businessman and entrepreneur, a man several city councilmembers called a friend. She was Oakland's top lobbyist, the person you hired if you really wanted something from City Hall.
Their annual Christmas parties attracted a who's who of Oakland politics to their stately Crocker Highlands home. Mayor Jerry Brown, Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, and Hu's old boss Don Perata all have been guests at the holiday bashes.
But by last year, the party was over. The breakup of their twenty-year relationship sent Wishom into an emotional tailspin. At one point, he even checked himself into a hospital for psychiatric observation. Compounding Wishom's grief over his lost love were his mounting financial and health troubles. Just three weeks before his 63rd birthday, he died a broken-hearted, angry, and desperate man.
But Wishom didn't take all his secrets to his grave. Or, rather, he didn't take all his ex-lover's secrets to his grave. Before his death, Wishom talked to the FBI about Hu's business dealings with local politicians. A year later, it now seems likely that the current federal investigation of Perata, the East Bay's most powerful politician, began with a tip from a jilted lover bent on revenge.
By the time Frank met Lily, he already had been married twice. He seems to have had no interest in figuring out whether the third time was the charm. Wishom and Hu lived together for more than a decade without getting married or having kids -- aside from their two Dalmatians. Still, friends say they referred to one another as husband and wife.
Married or not, Hu meant the world to Wishom. In his will, written in 1998, he left everything he had to her, snubbing his two grown daughters from his first marriage. But by the time he died, Wishom had little to leave except a mountain of debts.
Early on in their relationship, long before Lily Hu became an Oakland power broker, Wishom had the better business and political contacts of the two. He was a well-connected black businessman in a town with an entrenched black power structure. With Frank Tucker, Wishom formed F2 Technologies (F2, for the two Franks), an information and telecommunications technology consulting company. In the mid-'90s, the company boasted accounts with the city of Oakland, AC Transit, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District. According to court records, F2's accounts with Cable & Wireless and Northern Telecom alone grossed the company more than $30,000 a month. Wishom's longtime friend and business associate Jay McGrath says Frank was a top-notch consultant and an easy person to get along with. "He was charismatic, very articulate," he says. "Women were attracted to Frank like bees to honey."
In the early '90s, few people in political circles outside of Chinatown had heard of Lily Hu. She worked for Alameda developer Ron Cowan, who is now one of Perata's biggest campaign contributors. Her biggest claim to fame was being the first woman to serve as the president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. Then, in 1994, she burst onto the local political scene. Community leaders including architect Yui Hay Lee recruited her to run for Oakland's new "Asian" council seat. Two years earlier, the district had been gerrymandered to create a 35 percent Asian plurality. Hu, however, moved into Oakland shortly before she made her run, a fact seized upon by her opponent, John Russo.
It quickly became apparent that Hu was in way over her head. "She was not known," says Lee, now a member of the city's Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board. "She hadn't paid her dues in the community." Nor did Hu have a grasp of the issues. When former San Francisco Bay Guardian columnist Steve Stallone asked her to discuss her agenda for social programs, Hu asked, "What's a social program?"
Wishom did what he could to help his partner win support in the black community: 100 Black Men, a mentoring group he was active in, hosted a well-publicized reception for Hu. He also helped her get the endorsement of Congressman Ron Dellums. Wishom regularly played golf with a Dellums aide, Stallone recalled in a recent interview. Despite Wishom's efforts, Hu lost by a two-to-one margin to Russo, now Oakland's city attorney.
Yet after her defeat, Hu proved herself both gracious and shrewd. Like many campaigns, the Hu-versus-Russo race had its nasty moments. Russo backers tipped off the press that Hu had inflated her educational credentials. She claimed to have a bachelor's degree in business from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In truth, she had attended the college but hadn't graduated. Rather than hold a grudge against Russo after losing the election, Hu hosted a fund-raiser in Chinatown to help her erstwhile opponent retire his campaign debt. Lee recalls watching Hu chat up and charm the guests. Lee says that, while she wasn't much of a political orator, Hu could work a room.
Losing the council election turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Hu. She may have started the campaign a political novice, but by the end she'd made important new contacts. One of them was Alameda County Supervisor Don Perata.
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