Stalking the Senator 

As Don Perata snuck in and out through the kitchen door of the Oakland Airport Hilton, his stature seemed diminished.

Last Wednesday morning, Don Perata was on the verge of claiming the presidency of the state Senate and becoming the second most powerful man in California. By Thursday morning, after this newspaper reported that the FBI was investigating allegations of corruption and influence peddling, a score of reporters and TV cameramen had assembled outside the Oakland Airport Hilton, ready to pounce the moment he showed his face. The Don was about to discover the novelties of the perp walk.

As keynote speaker for the Oakland African-American Chamber of Commerce annual luncheon, Perata normally could have expected a purple introduction by KTVU anchor Dennis Richmond, a benediction from Acts Full Gospel bishop Bob Jackson, and a panorama of rapt faces as he declaimed from the podium. Chamber event organizers faxed press releases announcing his appearance to newsrooms throughout the Bay Area. But once the scandal broke, they rescinded their invitations and issued a blanket media ban. Only Oakland Tribune reporter Chauncey Bailey, who can be relied upon to squirt out fawning tributes, was allowed in; the rest of the roughly thirty reporters and cameramen were forced to wait outside, patrolling the access roads for the first sight of Perata's car.

Outside the Hilton, a gentle breeze swept through the oaks and among the luxury sedans in the parking lot. Meanwhile, cameramen ripped up divots of sod as they planted their tripods and staked out the entrance. The pack had scoped out the grounds and agreed that Perata could arrive by only one driveway. Immaculately dressed businessmen filed into the ballroom; those who hadn't read the papers this morning asked what the fuss was all about. Both marked and unmarked patrol cars cruised past, their occupants giving us long, noncommittal stares. Despite the last few days, being the Don still has its advantages.

City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente parked his black sedan a few dozen feet from the mob. For years, De La Fuente has served as Perata's muscle on the city council. And as Mayor Jerry Brown continues his retreat into the Platonic cave of his own skull, he has emerged as Oakland's new alpha dog. As he sat in the driver's seat, staring at us and talking into what appeared to be a cell phone, reporters muttered to each other: He's talking to Don right now. Doing surveillance. When he finally stepped out of his car and walked toward the entrance, the pack rushed him and stuck a nest of microphones in his face. What can you tell us about the investigation? What's going on? "I have no comment," he mumbled, looking down at his feet. "I don't know." Despite his small stature, De La Fuente always exudes swagger and raw power. But now, mobbed by reporters, he just looked small.

A few minutes after Oakland school administrator and rookie Peratista Randy Ward arrived with his CHP bodyguard, City Councilman Larry Reid walked out of the ballroom, all smiles and pinstripes. Who knew the press cared so much about the chamber luncheon? he joked. He shook hands, slapped backs, called reporters by their first names. Although Reid has been a Peratista of convenience, he always has been held at arm's length, bullied by Perata if the occasion called for it, never allowed into the inner circle. Now Reid must have seen the upside of being out in the cold: when the big one breaks, the crosshairs just pass him by. Finally, it was Don's turn to sweat a little.

Standing at a discreet distance, Ed Emerson took the measure of the crowd. Once Gray Davis' advance man, Emerson has hooked up with Perata, the new center of gravity for California Democrats. Dressed in blue jeans, his broad shoulders filling out a blue blazer, Emerson muttered into a cell phone; when a few reporters recognized him and walked up, he promised that Perata would have a statement for them after today's event. Most returned to lingering outside the front, but as a few of us dawdled near Emerson, a middle-aged man in a union jacket walked past. You know, he said, there's another way in the building, the kitchen entrance in the back. Sure, you need a pass to get through the security gate, but if anyone can secure one of those, Perata can. A TV news team and I raced around to the ballroom's rear entrance.

The servants' entrance was a sunbaked plain of asphalt, ventilation ducts, and storage lots surrounded by chain-link fences. Two Dumpsters squatted among stray hairs of rotting vegetables and puddles of toxic froth. Kitchen staff dressed in aprons and powder-blue uniforms walked in and out of a single security door. Large men in suits glared at us, and we knew we had hit the jackpot.

Within minutes, a red BMW swerved through the gate and stopped at the kitchen door, and Perata lumbered out of the passenger side. The cameraman ran to set up his shot, and Perata made for the door as fast as he could while retaining his poise. Emerson stuck his head out of the door and snapped, "He's gonna talk to you guys afterward!" Perata sped past the industrial ovens and prep cooks, and the door swung shut.

Inside the ballroom, Hilton employees ushered the press to a dark, narrow, luxuriantly carpeted hallway, where Perata would issue a statement. Camera jockeys elbowed each other for the best angle, and hotel staff lashed a rope across the hall to keep us from getting too close to the senator. And not a velvet rope, either, but a thick strand of longshoreman's hemp. "There's a fuckin' rope!" one producer laughed in disbelief. "We're not gonna bite him!" Perata finished his speech and, as applause wafted around the corner, strode to the microphones to get this over with.

"Is Arnold Schwarzenegger here?" he joked nervously before beginning that great American tradition: the nondenial denial. "Let me say this, and let me be brief," he said. "I have not been, nor has my office, in contact with any authorities associated with any investigation." As the shutters clicked and the bulbs flashed, he tried to focus on his future as senate president. "I'm excited about that opportunity," he vowed. "I'm working hard to make the most of those opportunities for the state and our own community. And we see here today that we have a group of African-American leaders. Entrepreneurs. That want to hear how Sacramento can help them rebuild their community. So they may take their rightful place and be preserved in our society. ... We're gonna spend our time and energy on things that matter. That's what I pledge to you. I appreciate you being here, and I wish you well." He turned and walked back the way he came in.

Don Perata was born the son of a milkman who changed his name to make it sound less Italian. He taught government and economics in Alameda public schools for almost seventeen years before dedicating himself to public service. He pledged to eradicate crack and guns in East Oakland. In time, he called governors and senators his peers, and ate crab in luxury boxes at the Coliseum. But as the great man receded back through the double doors and into the kitchen's heat, pausing to let busboys or dishwashers get on with their work, his figure diminished in more ways than one.


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