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 3 of 5

As the year ended, Perata took over as Senate majority leader, Burton's number two. While his rise to power would prove a boon for Polka, his son Nick Perata was still reaping most of the benefits. The younger Perata received $159,310 from campaigns associated with his father in 2002, compared to Polka's $31,382.

But Polka saw firsthand how much money there was to be made by partnering with the senator. In May 2003, she quit her Burton gig to consult full-time. She opened an office near the statehouse; her partners included Tim Staples' son Sean, and Michael Rosati, husband of the senator's daughter Rebecca Perata-Rosati, according to a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle story. Polka's move paid off. By November, she had surpassed Nick on his dad's reelection campaign payroll, pulling in $5,000 a month in consulting fees, public records show.

But Polka had yet to experience a hard-fought political campaign until 2004, when Claudia Alvarez, a moderate Santa Ana councilwoman, challenged the liberal Umberg for state Assembly. Alvarez paid Polka $40,000, but the team proved no match for Umberg and Richie Ross in the March primary. "She was very bitter about that loss," one Sacramento source said of Polka. "She started telling people that there was no way Umberg would ever be elected to the Senate."

The defeat didn't appear to faze Perata. That July, he increased Polka's monthly retainer to $7,500. By fall, four PACs had hired her to assist two of his legislative allies from the Central Valley with their reelection campaigns. Polka grossed $146,385 in a matter of months as Mike Machado was reelected to the Senate and Nicole Parra retained her seat in the Assembly. Perata's own reelection, of course, was never in doubt.

As 2004 drew to a close, Polka's luck was about to get even better thanks to the senator — and the FBI.


Lowbrow Politics

It's unclear why a committee that runs Democratic voter registration drives throughout California needed a bare-knuckled operative like Sandi Polka. Apparently not for her fund-raising skills. Perata is one of the most prodigious fund-raisers in the state, but some people who know Polka say she detests cocktail parties and political schmoozing, and rarely attends large donor parties — the very traits most prized among political consultants.

Nonetheless, the Voter Registration and Education Fund started paying her $16,000 to $18,500 a month in early 2005, and continued the payments at least through the end of 2006. Suddenly, Polka's retainer fees were on par with those of Richie Ross and Gale Kaufman, widely regarded as California's two top political consultants. This was all Perata's doing, according to two Sacramento sources. "She's determined to be the most powerful consultant in California, but she can't do it without Don," one source said. "She doesn't have the talent, she doesn't have the charm, she doesn't have the ability."

But Polka, according to sources who know her, does possess qualities Perata covets: She's unfailingly loyal, and carries out his wishes without question. In 2005, for example, the voter registration fund spent $1.96 million — money raised to register voters — on one of the senator's pet projects: defeating Governor Schwarzenegger's attempt to wrest control of state redistricting from the legislature. Later that year, Perata put Polka on Rebuilding California, a committee he established to raise money for the $20 billion statewide transportation bond he would push the following year. As the 2006 election cycle revved up, the senator added more campaign work to Polka's résumé. In the process, he involved himself, for the first time, in state-level campaigns that pitted Democrat against Democrat, even though the outcomes did not appear to affect his political interests or power base. Perata made his moves quietly; the funds were directed through little-known PACs, a strategy that ensured that few would know what he was up to. "The purpose was to make money, not to win elections," said one knowledgeable Sacramento source.

The big money, apparently, was in Southern California. In addition to the Umberg-Correa race, Polka was hired to help elect Glendale City Councilman Frank Quintero. In that case, her benefactor was the California Latino Leadership Fund, an Oakland-based PAC controlled by Perata associate Robert Apodaca, who also is involved, according to one Sacramento source, in the Voter Registration and Education Fund. The Latino Leadership Fund paid $49,800 to Polka and launched mean-spirited attack ads against Quintero's opponent, Burbank school board member Paul Krekorian.

In robocalls and hit-piece mailers, the ads asked: "What does Paul Krekorian have in common with a convicted terrorist? Plenty." The allegation, however, was bogus. The ads asserted that Krekorian, who is of Armenian descent, had received an endorsement from the Armenian National Committee, a group that once gave an award to a man who later pled guilty to weapons charges, and who the FBI said was linked to an Armenian terrorist group. But there was no evidence that the Armenian National Committee knew of the weapons crimes, let alone endorsed them. Nor was there evidence that Krekorian had any knowledge of it.

Polka's ads totally backfired. "She's not the smartest tactician in town," one Sacramento source said. Another put it more bluntly: "People were horrified about what she had done." The ads engendered a strong backlash and spurred an outpouring of sympathy for Krekorian. Even Quintero, the man Polka was hired to elect, denounced them.

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