When Don Perata took his first stab at public office in 1975, he was a slow-growth leftist battling an Alameda building boom and the ambitious expansion plans of Harbor Bay Island developer Ron Cowan. Never short on guts, the 29-year-old set his sights high. He ran for mayor.
The city's establishment looked down on Perata as some sort of wild-haired antiwar protester. But the Alameda schoolteacher, who spent his days schooling kids on Watergate and the speeches of Malcolm X, did surprisingly well. He lost by a mere seven hundred votes to Chuck Corica, who went on to reign over Alameda politics for the next two decades.
"That's when I learned that campaigning is a game, as opposed to a higher calling," Perata told the Express in 1995. "It was a painful lesson." Painful, perhaps, but he learned it well. He promptly landed a job with Assemblyman John Miller, and when his boss was appointed to the bench in 1978, Perata again aimed high, making a run for Miller's seat. This time he squared off against another up-and-coming East Bay politician, Elihu Harris. And unlike Perata, Harris had the juice. He was financed by Perata's old nemesis, Cowan, and backed by state Senator Bill Lockyer. Harris outspent Perata six to one. Perata made it close anyway, losing by only six hundred votes.
Perata was zero for two, but he had shown political moxie and wasn't about to quit. Instead, he displayed what would become one of his political trademarks -- his ability to turn supporters of his opponents into allies. He persuaded Lockyer to hire him in Sacramento, and Lockyer in turn introduced him to state Senator Howard Berman, an influential Southern California legislator who also had supported Harris. Perata joined Berman's staff and took up with Berman's brother Michael, a legendary political operative. The Bermans taught Perata the art of fund-raising, hardball politics, and slick mailers; he was one of their star students.
Today, their pupil is the unquestioned head of the East Bay Democratic political machine, overseeing a network of family members, friends, and political allies throughout Alameda County. But his success stems less from the progressive principles that at first seemed to motivate him than from the way he raises money, jumpstarts political careers, schmoozes with reporters, and converts foes into friends. Case in point: Perata's much-changed relationship with Cowan, who has gone from being the target of his campaign barbs to being a good pal and longtime campaign donor. Cowan also helped launch the career of Lily Hu, the lobbyist who became one of Perata's closest confidantes and was the original focus of the current federal corruption probe into the senator's finances.
Somewhere along the way during his almost four decades in politics, Don Perata became the type of politician whom he himself might have opposed as a 1975 civics teacher and political novice. He is tight with developers, who have greatly benefited from their strong support of him. He has deliberately cultivated the image of a mobster, and is ruthless about wielding power with those who stand in his way or don't succumb to his charms -- even former allies or love interests. And he has been involved in a dizzying array of ethically questionable financial deals. But somehow nothing ever sticks, which is how he came to be known as the Teflon Don.
On the heels of Perata's recent confirmation as new president of the state Senate, it's obvious that the federal investigation has failed to seriously harm him so far. No one knows for sure at this point how the investigation will turn out. The 59-year-old state senator, who brushed off interview requests, could face criminal charges, or the whole affair could amount to nothing more than a minor bump on his long road to becoming one of California's most powerful men.
Perata was bitten early by the political bug and got his first taste of government work in 1966, volunteering for Democratic Assemblyman Robert Crown. Twenty years and two campaign losses later, Perata had a reputation for being a smart strategist who had yet to win at the ballot box. He changed all that when he ran for the county Board of Supervisors in 1986. As with his assembly bid eight years earlier, Perata was the white candidate vying for what was considered to be a black seat. His opponent was Sandre Swanson, an African American who worked for Congressman Ronald Dellums and had the backing of East Bay progressives.
But Perata took what he had learned from the Bermans, mixed in some old-fashioned door-to-door politics, and came up with a winning formula. Among the tricks he pulled from his bag was turning an ordinary household item -- a potholder -- into a campaign tool, a gimmick he employs to this day. He had 35,000 potholders printed with his name on them and mailed them to voters. Then he walked precinct after precinct in East Oakland, knocking on doors and simply outhustling his opposition. He dominated Alameda, just as he had done against Harris in 1978. But this time he captured nearly half the vote in East Oakland.
"He worked real, real hard," said Mary King, who served with Perata on the board and met him while working on Lockyer's staff. "He wouldn't even go for a drink. It was just a driving force with him to do all things political."
The man whose political hero was President John F. Kennedy was still something of an idealist. Once in office, he put the hardscrabble issues facing residents of East Oakland at the forefront of his political agenda. Gang killings were rampant, and the crack epidemic was spiraling out of control. So Perata formed an infant-mortality task force that looked into the issue of crack babies, fought tobacco and liquor ads near schools, and launched a support program for grandparents who were forced to raise their children's children.
"The unique thing about Don is he will throw out ten ideas, knowing only one will probably catch on, but he supports all ten with equal energy," said current boardmember Gail Steele.
No issue received more of Perata's attention than gun control. He held hearings, targeted gun-store owners, and finally convinced David Roberti, then senate president, to sponsor a bill banning assault weapons. A 1989 massacre in a Stockton schoolyard spurred the legislation, and California became the first state to enact an assault weapons ban.
Battling the gun lobby vaulted Perata onto the nightly news. He quickly developed a flair for delivering the perfect quote on a wide range of hot-button issues. "He had this gift for getting the media around him," King said. "He'd be working on something, and then all of the sudden, there would be this press conference."
But despite his efforts on behalf of East Oakland, Perata was evolving into a political pragmatist. One of the experiences that forged his realpolitik was a 1991 battle in which King and other black leaders argued that his and her districts should be redrawn so that King could represent part of East Oakland. At the time, King's district was mostly white Castro Valley and San Leandro. Perata felt betrayed, and complained that he was a victim of racial politics. But he lost.