In what could be his first move toward the mayor's seat, Don Perata's political machine is working overtime to elect one of its own to Oakland's City Council
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Big money is flowing into an Oakland City Council campaign, fueling rumors that state Senate President Don Perata might be preparing for a Willie Brownstyle move from Sacramento kingpin to Bay Area mayor.
Perata's former chief of staff Kerry Hamill is vying for the city's at-large council seat, running against AC Transit board member Rebecca Kaplan. Two independent expenditure committees with possible links to Perata are laying out tens of thousands of dollars on Hamill's behalf. Sources say Perata has been fundraising for his ex-staffer, as has Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, a longtime Perata loyalist. And it appears one of De La Fuente's efforts to raise cash may have skirted the boundaries of state law.
The stakes for De La Fuente are definitely high. Hamill's election would help him retain his role as president of the closely divided council. But the scuttlebutt around Oakland is that a successful Hamill candidacy could have bigger implications. It might just pave the way for something many local observers see as inevitable: a Perata run for mayor.
Current Mayor Ron Dellums is reeling from a spike in violent crime, huge budget deficits, and a detached leadership style, all of which is fueling a nascent recall movement. Perata will be termed out of state office this year and has made no secret of his interest in Oakland's top job, despite allegedly being the target of an ongoing political corruption investigation by the FBI. Having a powerful colleague like Hamill on the council, while keeping De La Fuente in control of the body, could make a run for mayor attractive to Perata (who didn't return our calls for comment).
"He's going to run. Everybody knows he's going to run," Oakland City Attorney John Russo told the Guardian, adding that the flurry of campaigning for Hamill is "absolutely a signal" of Perata's mayoral ambitions. "That group of people [Perata and his allies] clearly see their interests lying with Kerry."
Reached for comment, Hamill said, "Don's supporting me because I'm the best candidate.... Whether it is for selfish reasons like making sure the right people for him are on the council or not, I believe he is supporting me because he likes my work."
If you live in Oakland or have spent any time there recently, chances are you've seen the pro-Hamill campaign signs promising "Safe Neighborhoods Now" affixed to fences and lampposts all over town. Oakland mailboxes have been stuffed with flyers backing Hamill's candidacy. The signs and some of the other materials position Hamill in opposition to Dellums more than Kaplan, with one mail piece hammering the current mayor for his handling of the city's recent crime wave.
Hamill's campaign did not produce the signs or much of the literature championing her. Instead, two newly formed independent expenditure committees doled out more than $87,000 on her behalf in the first half of this year alone. The groups are not required to disclose their recent spending until Oct. 6, but given the volume of material being generated, there is little doubt their combined outlays will top $100,000 for the year. Hamill told us that outside groups are also aiding her opponent Kaplan, though she did not name them. Our examination of campaign records found that the California Nurses Association paid $24,535 for a pro-Kaplan mailer in May.
"That's definitely a lot of money," Alameda County supervisor Keith Carson told us, referring to the spending in support of Hamill. "It certainly raises your antenna. In any campaign when you have two separate entrants putting resources in, you pause and ask, 'What's behind it?'<0x2009>"
On the surface the two groups backing Hamill appear unconnected. But recent media reports and a Guardian examination of campaign finance records reveal several ties between both organizations and Hamill's old boss, Perata.
The first group, which calls itself Californians for Good Jobs, Clean Streets, and Outstanding Schools, displays clear Perata associations. The group's treasurer is Mark Capitolo, who used to be Perata's director of communications. Many of its donors consistently give to Perata's numerous political action committees. And its campaign documents list a Sacramento phone number that, as the East Bay Express reported in May, belongs to Perata's chief political strategist, Sandra Polka.
Polka and employees of her consulting business appear to be deeply involved in the senator's affairs. When we called Perata's Sacramento office seeking comment for this story, we were told to contact Paul Hefner, who works for Polka's firm. Polka, Hefner, De La Fuente, Capitolo, and Californians for Good Jobs president, Hilda Martinez, did not return our calls for comment.
Perata's links to the second group, known as Oakland Jobs PAC, are not as immediately apparent, and one person involved with the group denied that the legislator is aiding their cause. But an inspection of disclosure forms did yield evidence of the legislator's potential influence. In mid-May, Oakland Jobs received its first $10,000 from another political action committee known as Vote Matters. As the Contra Costa Times reported, Vote Matters spent more than $175,000 earlier this year trying to pass Proposition 93, which would have allowed Perata and other termed-out state politicians to remain in office. Perata strongly supported the measure, which did not pass.
Robert Apodaca, who called himself a "personal friend" of Perata's, informed the Guardian that he recommended that Vote Matters provide the money to Oakland Jobs. Apodaca is director of marketing for the architecture and planning firm MVE and Associates, which designed the huge Oak to Ninth Project along the Oakland waterfront. Perata passed key legislation that allowed the project to move forward, though it has yet to be built. Oakland Jobs donor Signature Properties is one of the project's lead developers and, according to the East Bay Express, Oakland Jobs' treasurer Sean Welch has worked for Signature Properties in the past. Signature Properties has also been a donor to Perata's political committees, as have several other Oakland Jobs contributors.
In addition to his work for MVE and what he deemed his "unpaid advisor" relationship with Vote Matters, Apodaca is listed as a paid campaign consultant for a now-defunct committee called the "California Latino Leadership Fund" (CLLF). CLLF employed Polka as well as Apodaca in 2006 and 2007. Polka is now working on behalf of the other committee backing Hamill this year, Californians for Good Jobs, Safe Streets, and Outstanding Jobs.
Apodaca told us he could not remember why he pushed for Vote Matters, which normally supports state candidates and initiatives, to give money to a local committee like Oakland Jobs. But he was certain that Perata played no part in it. "He's not involved in [the committee's decisions]. He's not even in the room."
But a well-placed East Bay source told us Perata was in the room with Oakland Jobsaffiliated figures while money was being sought to support Hamill. The source, who asked not to be identified, said Perata was part of a breakfast meeting several months ago at the downtown offices of the Oakland law firm of Wendel, Rosen, Black and Dean, at which De La Fuente asked a group of prominent developers to give large sums of money to an independent expenditure committee that would back Hamill.
The source could not recall if the committee was named by De La Fuente or anyone else at the meeting. But according to the source, pro-development activist Greg McConnell was there. McConnell told us he is involved in running Oakland Jobs. His business, the McConnell Group, has received funding from the group. The source also said representatives from Signature Properties and developer Forest Hill, another Oakland Jobs donor, were in attendance and that De La Fuente expressed an interest in raising "over a hundred grand" for the race.
A second source confirmed that Perata was at the meeting in question but did not recall De La Fuente asking for the funds, though the second source did say De La Fuente has subsequently called seeking money for Hamill's campaign.
Reached for comment, McConnell asserted that Perata is not involved with Oakland Jobs. He said a morning meeting did take place at the Wendel, Rosen firm "a couple of weeks ago," during which Perata asked the developers in attendance to contribute directly to Hamill's campaign. But according to McConnell, Perata left the room before De La Fuente made a pitch to fund independent expenditures. Direct contributions to candidates are limited to $600 per donor in Oakland. Independent groups like Oakland Jobs are not subject to those restrictions.
In addition to learning of De La Fuente's alleged fundraising pitch at a recent developers' meeting, the Guardian has obtained a letter from De La Fuente to potential Hamill donors asking them to attend a $600-a-head event Oct. 2. Nothing in the letter itself, dated Sept. 16, appears to violate any campaign finance rules. But it is printed on what appears to be official City of Oakland letterhead, complete with the official seal. That could mean trouble for De La Fuente.
"That's not kosher," Mark Morodomi, the supervising deputy in the Oakland city attorney's office, told us. State law prohibits the use of government resources for political campaigning. Before coming to Oakland, Morodomi spent 10 years at the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's campaign-finance watchdog.
A line in small type on the bottom of the letter reads, "Not printed or mailed at public expense." Morodomi said the phrase "comes close" to making the use of city letterhead permissible, but he added, "It doesn't inoculate him. Magic language doesn't automatically make it okay ... those words have to be true."
According to Morodomi, if any part of generating and disseminating the missive involved taxpayer-funded resources from printing costs to paper, envelopes, or stamps De La Fuente would be in violation of the law. Using Oakland's official seal could also be problematic.
Hamill dismissed concerns that the invitation tested the limits of the law: "I've been around for 20 years, and I've seen council members use that kind of stationary for fundraisers all the time."
But City Attorney Russo, Morodomi's boss, that even if the letter turns out to be technically legal because no public resources were used, he is uncomfortable with De La Fuente's decision to mix fundraising with official city documentation: "It's not great form. You have to be really mindful as to how it would appear."
Guardian interns Katie Baker and Anna Rendall contributed to this report.