My Fair Lady 

Don Perata helped raise Sandra Polka from debt and into a position of wealth and power. The big question is why? Campaigning the Perata Way: Second of two parts

Page 2 of 5

At the time, Barr was a maintenance man at the Auburn Journal, a small newspaper in the Sierra foothills, and the couple lived in a three-bedroom, two-bath home just off Highway 49 outside Grass Valley. The house, which they bought for $197,000 in 1991, sat on ten acres at the end of a dirt and gravel road. Behind a gated fence, they tilled the land, raised donkeys, and mostly kept to themselves. One neighbor said recently that he saw Polka only on her way to and from work, speeding by in her car.

Some people who know Polka describe her as a loner with a searing temper. "She doesn't like anybody in Sacramento," one Sacramento source said. "She's very aggressive, very rough around the edges," another added.

By 1998, Polka's fortunes began to change. She landed a job as a mid-level aide to John Burton, the San Francisco Democrat who preceded Perata as Senate president pro tem. Having once worked for Richie Ross, a prominent political consultant with whom she'd had a nasty falling-out, Polka had some campaign experience and quickly gained Burton's trust. The next year, Burton's good friend Willie Brown hired her to help with his San Francisco mayoral reelection. Then, in 2000, Burton put Polka on his powerful Senate Majority Fund committee, which he used to get his Democratic allies elected. Perata donated $100,000 to the fund that same year — greasing the skids for Burton to appoint him Senate majority leader two years later.

The Perata-Polka relationship began to blossom in 2001. When she launched her own consulting company out of her home, Polka's first client was Tim Staples, Perata's old college buddy. At the time, Staples also was the sole client of Perata's consulting firm, Perata Engineering. The senator also put Polka on his reelection campaign payroll that year, and she worked on redistricting with Perata, who headed the Senate's redistricting committee.

As Perata and Polka's bond grew tighter, Polka's marriage unraveled. In March 2001, she sued Barr for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. He had been out of work for two years, and despite her jobs with the state's most powerful political leaders, the couple was still smothered in debt. That July, she told the court her monthly expenses for 2000 were $4,858 — nearly twice her monthly take-home income of $2,951.

Judging from the divorce records, Polka seemed bent on extracting everything she could from the marriage. She demanded custody of the couple's three donkeys, the rototiller, two Chinese rugs, and a 1993 Taurus wagon. Despite her debt, she somehow hired a lawyer, and appeared ready to take Barr to trial.

In late 2001, however, Polka suddenly came into money and closed the books on her troubles. She paid off her creditors, the IRS, and her husband. In the divorce settlement, she got the house and everything else she asked for. In return, she paid Barr, who could not afford an attorney, $10,000. He packed up the rest of his belongings and moved across the highway to slot nineteen of a small, squalid trailer park, which on a recent visit was full of empty beer cans and barking dogs.

As Barr's fortunes plummeted, the senator made sure Polka's star was on the rise. "She found in Don Perata," said one Sacramento source, "the Tony Soprano she's always been looking for."

The Money Train

Sandi Polka's career really began to take off in 2002. Perata put her on his statewide campaign to overturn term limits, where she joined Tim Staples and Nick Perata on the payroll. The elder Perata faced term limits in 2004, and although voters soundly rejected his ballot initiative, the senator's friend, then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer, subsequently issued a favorable opinion that let Perata stay in the Senate through 2008.

Polka, who was still on Burton's payroll, picked up two new consulting clients in 2002. BART hired her to do "public outreach" in anticipation of a bond campaign, while the City of Oakland retained her to spearhead its own redistricting based on the 2000 Census. Polka's contract — $110,000 — raised some eyebrows. By contrast, San Francisco, with eleven legislative districts to Oakland's eight, paid its own redistricting consultant $61,000.

Polka's no-bid deal with Oakland was engineered by City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, Perata's closest East Bay political ally. At the time, De La Fuente touted Polka's experience with statewide redistricting. Ultimately, though, the council mostly ignored her work and adopted a redistricting map assembled by De La Fuente and Councilman Larry Reid. "She was asking questions about our preferences, just doing minor tweaks to the districts," recalled Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, who said she viewed Polka as yet another instance of the city overpaying for politically connected consultants.

Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Related User Lists

Latest in Feature

Author Archives

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation