The Man 

How Don Perata became the politician he is today.

Page 2 of 5

"That's when I realized that part of your effectiveness on the part of your constituents is to punish your enemies," he said in 1995.

Perata also continued to build upon the lessons the Bermans had taught him. So while he championed the needs of his poor constituents, he also set out to forge relationships with some of the most powerful business interests in the East Bay. One of his closest friends was Ed DeSilva, a road builder and developer. DeSilva and his various companies and their employees were among Perata's largest campaign donors in the 1990s. DeSilva once went so far as to forgive a $50,000 loan he had bestowed on one of Perata's campaigns.

Although Perata fought hard for liberal social issues, his ties with developers often placed him at odds with environmentalists. In the early 1990s, for instance, he backed a proposal for eleven thousand homes in the Dougherty Valley near San Ramon. The main roadblock to the plan was the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which said it didn't have enough water to serve the new development.

Environmentalists Nancy Nadel and Stuart Flashman were on the EBMUD board when it voted to sue over the project in 1993. It didn't take long for Perata to punish his enemies. He called a press conference and accused EBMUD of wasting taxpayer funds. A year later, he engineered a hit-piece campaign against Flashman, who lost his bid for reelection. "I was pretty sore about that," recalled Flashman, an environmental attorney. "It was clear that Perata had received a lot of campaign contributions from developers."

Instead of cruising to a certain third term on the county board, Perata surprised political observers when he launched a 1994 campaign for state controller. It was a mistake. He poured dollar after dollar into a direct-mail campaign that flopped when most of the brochures and mailers never made it out of the warehouse. Perata then completely abandoned the campaign ten days before the election when his mother fell ill.

Out of office, Perata started Perata Engineering, his own political consulting business representing numerous East Bay business interests. But he was never completely out of the political fray. He worked behind the scenes to bring the Raiders back from Los Angeles, and made a quiet bid to be Oakland's city manager. When that failed, he devised a strategy for winning a state Assembly seat in 1996.

Perata easily defeated former Oakland City Councilwoman Dezie Woods-Jones in that race, and after two years in Sacramento, he appeared content with his job in the lower house. When he won reelection in early 1998, he told friends and supporters that he had no plans to run for the state Senate seat just vacated by Barbara Lee, who had succeeded Dellums in Congress. In fact, Perata looked as if he were going to throw his weight behind one of his friends, Supervisor Keith Carson.

"Early on, he supported me," Carson said. "We even had a couple of meetings at his house to talk strategy." Carson was going head-to-head with Assemblywoman Dion Aroner in a classic clash of East Bay progressives.

Then Perata suddenly pulled an about-face and declared his candidacy. "I felt caught off guard," Carson said. "I was angry at first, but I grew up in politics and I knew anything was possible."

Some political insiders believe Perata purposely persuaded Carson to run, knowing that Carson and Aroner would split the progressive vote. And, of course, they did. Perata won easily in trusty Alameda, while picking up just enough votes in the rest of Oakland, Piedmont, and Berkeley to slip past Aroner.

Aroner would not comment on the 1998 race, but Carson said that, in hindsight, he made a mistake: "Had I stopped and realized what was going on, I probably would have pulled out of the election. I personally think she might have had a better chance to win. We were going after many of the same voters."

As Perata's political power continued to grow, his personal life turned tumultuous. His wife Rosemary, from whom he had separated in 1992, filed for divorce in April 1998, which became final that November. His father died in late August, just days before Perata's Senate victory and a year after his mother finally succumbed to neurological dementia.

The terms of Perata's divorce from Rosemary, who suffered from a chronic disease, appeared to put him up against a financial wall. He agreed to give her their houseboat and another piece of Alameda property they owned together, and to pay her $78,000 a year in spousal support. The support payments soaked up much of his annual income, which he declared in 1998 was $186,000 -- $99,000 from his legislative salary, and the rest from Perata Engineering.

Perata's finances grew tighter when he personally loaned his campaign $84,000 in 1998. But some relief came early the following year when he inherited two homes from his parents and promptly took out a $100,000 loan on one of them, public records show. He also obtained a $150,000 loan on his Alameda home before he purchased a house in Oakland near Piedmont Avenue for $445,000 later that year.


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