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Why I Support Don Perata for Mayor (Part I)

July 5, 2010

As long-time Oakland residents know, Don Perata has been a force in local politics for many years.

His list of progressive accomplishments is long and unimpeachable.  As state assemblyman, senator, and senate leader, Don Perata carried landmark legislation in Sacramento on literally dozens of public policy issues that the Democratic coalition holds dear.  Climate change legislation.  Gun control.  Health care reform.  Social welfare coverage.  Labor laws that make it easier to organize unions.  Minimum wage increases.  Environmental protection.  Public transportation funding.  His record is really a case of, “you name it, Senator Perata did it.”  He is a modest man, and doesn’t trumpet these accomplishments in his public appearances.  He likes to work behind the scenes, as a workhorse rather than a show horse.  That’s fine, because Sacramento and Oakland are full of show horses.  Nonetheless, the entire state of California, and Oakland in particular, owes Senator Perata an immeasurable debt of gratitude for holding firm on the front lines and advancing the progressive agenda, when Republicans held the governorship and controlled Washington, DC.

I personally find it hard to believe that any self-respecting progressives and Democrats in Oakland would consider supporting another candidate, given Senator Perata’s caliber and his record of accomplishments for our state and our city.  To me, it would be like voting against Willie Brown or Ted Kennedy—legislators with lifetimes of accomplishments.  But politics being what it is, the best progressive candidate doesn’t always win, and the campaign this fall will be difficult.  Robert Gammon, formerly of the Tribune and currently of the local weekly, has made it his life’s goal to destroy Senator Perata.  Anyone with an internet connection can call up 15 years or so of poorly researched hit pieces by the obsessed Mr. Gammon, the monomaniac Captain Ahab of local ‘journalism’.  The vibrant and wonderful blogging community in Oakland generally supports half-term city councilor and marijuana-legalization activist Rebecca Kaplan.  Jean Quan, a two-term city councilor, has strong support in her district.  These are hard obstacles for even a seasoned campaigner like Don Perata to overcome.

Over the next few months or so, I am going to offer some short essays explaining why I support Don Perata for mayor, what I view as the core issues of the campaign, and how Oakland can emerge from the crisis in which it finds itself.  I begin below with my first reason for supporting Senator Perata for mayor:

Reason Number One: A Willingness to use ‘Tough’ Leadership

One (Partial) Diagnosis for Oakland’s Ills

Why is the willingness to use ‘tough’ leadership so important for Oakland?  I plan to write more systematically on this later in the summer, but a thumbnail sketch of what’s wrong in the city is that the institutions are broken.  In political science-speak, institutions are “rules of the game,” human-devised constraints on human behavior.  In my discipline, we essentially define institutions as anything that shapes how humans interact with each other.  They can be formal, like the US Constitution, which aims to regulate how various branches of government interact with each other, with the citizens, and with the several states.  And institutions can also be informal, like the norm that undergraduates should call their professors by their title and last name, but their teaching assistants by their first name.  An organization (say, the United Nations, the Internal Revenue Service, or the Boy Scouts) is also an institution—in so far as it is a bundle of rules that guide the behavior of humans both within and outside that organization.  But not all institutions are organizations: the Geneva Conventions are treaties that guide how states are supposed to behave during wartime, but there is no formal bureaucratic enforcement mechanism, save for the limited involvement of the Red Cross.

There are many institutions in Oakland that are broken.  The mayoralty itself is only limping along under Ron Dellums.  But I want to talk about two other prominent ones.  First is the City Charter.  The Charter states that when the legislative branch of the city interacts with the executive branch of the city, it should interact with only the very top officials.  In other words, the City Council should interact with the Mayor and perhaps the City Administrator.  Councilors should not be contacting and exerting pressure on individual departments, department heads, or line-worker bureaucrats, say, in the Parks Department or the Public Works Department.  This rule, which obviously constrains how the city councilors behave, was presumably put in place to prevent councilors from extracting patronage or favoritism out of the city bureaucracy, i.e. extracting “special consideration” from the bureaucracy.

During the parking-ticket fiasco in the spring, various media reports suggested that members of the city council were flagrantly violating the city charter, and exerting pressure on the parking department to let certain parking violations slide in certain city council districts.  Above and beyond the obvious inequity of this policy, this episode illustrates how council members can try to grab executive power—the power to direct the administration of the city—from the mayor, rather than limiting themselves to legislating the laws to be implemented.  Even City Attorney John Russo suggested (carefully) that the charter was being violated:

City Attorney John Russo said any council member directing staff – instead of working through the city administrator – violated the city charter.

“The idea is to protect the city from this kind of scenario, where council members are able to cut different deals for their district,” he said. The public, too, holds responsibility for expecting council members to intervene for them, Russo said. “Everyone is complicit here.”

If the city councilors have problems with the city’s administration, or their constituents’ needs aren’t being met adequately, then the councilors are supposed to take it up with the mayor or the city administrator.  It takes a forceful mayor to push back against council interference.

The second important institution that is broken in Oakland is the bureaucracy itself.  The bureaucracy is not performing adequately.  Technology is not being adopted, performance metrics are not even reported in many cases, and standard HR procedures are not being followed.  The citizens are not receiving the “bang for the buck” that they deserve or expect out of the relatively expensive city bureaucracy.

Institutions are by their nature entrenched and difficult to change.  After all, they are intended to restrain individuals, not enable them.  Unusual amounts of political pressure are often necessary simply to nudge institutions in the right direction, let alone transform them.  I think Don Perata is the only mayoral candidate with the chops to push that hard and that vigorously against the broken institutions in Oakland, to get them finally back on track.  The city council cannot be allowed to run roughshod over the Charter, and the bureaucracy has to be allowed to do its job.  And the bureaucracy has to be convinced, coerced, or cajoled into higher-quality performance.  Getting these institutions back on track (among all the other issues facing the city) will not be easy or conflict-free.  But I think Don Perata certainly has the best shot of doing so.

Why Senator Perata?

Like the best progressive elected officials, Senator Perata uses the full range of political tactics available to him.  Over his distinguished career he has demonstrated his facility with most forms of political leadership:  building coalitions, working the ‘inside game’, leveraging his network of supporters, working the media, making tactical concessions to win passage of a bill, and holding firm when necessary to win concessions.  (These skills may sound trite, but they are not skills that every politician shares.)  One of his most obvious skills is political fundraising for Democratic candidates and causes; I don’t think I exaggerate in saying that he has raised tens of millions of dollars for Democrats, the Democratic Party, and progressive causes.  Another skill is his recruitment of, support for, and partnerships with up-and-coming community leaders in Oakland and around the state.  These two skills in particular give Senator Perata a large measure of his political power—power he uses for progressive ends to “get things done.”  A consummate dealmaker, Senator Perata got things done even in a severely broken Sacramento.

In addition to these skills at persuasion and coalition building, Senator Perata is not afraid to play hardball when it’s appropriate.  Two examples spring to my mind.  First, when three fellow senate Democrats broke a caucus rule (and crossed him), Perata locked them out of their offices using his official power as president pro-tempore.  That may seem petty, but, well, disciplining caucus members is that sort of game:

“Whether it’s locking somebody out of an office or repainting it or suddenly having the special parking space vanish, legislative leaders back to Jesse Unruh have taken some kind of action to maintain discipline in the caucus,” said Bruce Bronzan, an Assembly member from 1982 to 1993.

As a political scientist and political junkie, I eat this stuff up.

Second, Senator Perata played hardball with a Republican legislator who broke an agreement to vote in favor of the state budget in 2007.  (Can we finally call a constitutional convention, most importantly to kill the two-thirds budget rule?)  From Wikipedia:

In response to Denham’s refusal to vote for the budget on the grounds that it wasn’t balanced, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata demoted Denham from his position as Vice Chairman of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee. At the same time, Perata started working with local Democratic parties in the Central Valley to create a petition to start a recall election against Denham.

The recall made in onto the ballot but lost; Perata’s actions are still a good example of hardball tactics.  There are many other examples.  (But not overly many!)

Why a Willingness to Play ‘Hardball” is a Necessary Condition for Progressive Change

I argue that hardball tactics are an essential tool in the progressive toolkit.  (I argue this most persuasively after a glass or two of red wine.)  Of course they are not the only tactic… But progressives need to understand how important ‘tough’ leadership is to our success.  Why is it so often necessary for progressives to be tough?  Tougher than conservatives?  Because American constitutional and political-institutional arrangements favor the status quo.  Our political system has an amazing number of veto points relative to other advanced democracies, which tend to have parliamentary systems with disciplined party government.  Federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism, presidentialism, the committee system, judicial review, weak parties, decentralized government within the states, overlapping and redundant local jurisdictions, the privileged position of business in polyarchy, and a truly ridiculous number of lower-level elected officials all combine to slow reform to a glacial pace.  As a result, progressive reformists in the United States have an exceedingly difficult time advancing their agenda; successful progressive leaders have typically needed to use—vigorously—the broadest range of tactics available to them, including hardball.

(Hardball is also the favorite leadership strategy of political scientists because that is where we get all of our colorful political anecdotes.)

In fact, the two great eras of major progressive reform—the New Deal, and the Great Society/Civil Rights era—were orchestrated in part by presidents unafraid of using hardball tactics.  To be sure, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were also masters of co-option—granting recalcitrant congressmen pork barrel projects for their districts, using the bully pulpit to rally the American public, or offering legislative concessions or executive branch jobs to senators.  However, these ‘velvet’ tactics were reinforced by—and were not substitutes for—hardball.

We mostly remember Roosevelt’s political tactics as, perhaps, grandfatherly.  He gave speeches full of soaring rhetoric and held Fireside Chats on the radio.  But that sepia-toned memory is only part of the story.  Roosevelt enjoyed enormous congressional majorities, and the significant threats to Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms came not from legislative obstruction, but from the Supreme Court.  The Court at the time held dearly to its 19th century doctrines of economic substantive due process, and of very narrowly interpreting the Commerce Clause of the US Constitution; together, these doctrines essentially prohibited economic regulation at both the state and federal level.  Still following these doctrines, the Supreme Court struck down many of the core laws of the New Deal in the mid-1930s.

So FDR played hardball.  In a March 1937 Fireside Chat, he proposed expanding the Supreme Court from nine justices up to 15.  (The size of the Supreme Court is set by statute, not by the Constitution.)  Roosevelt, of course, would nominate those six extra justices, and they would be readily confirmed by a Senate supportive of a more liberal court.  In the end, one justice began switching his votes from the conservative bloc to the liberal bloc, thus preserving the New Deal reforms and the nine-member Supreme Court.  This apparent surrender to Roosevelt’s “court packing scheme” is the so-called “switch in time to save nine”:  FDR took direct aim at one of the most august American institutions and made it bend to his will, an unusual and even breathtaking action commensurate with the scale of the political and economic crisis of the 1930s.  (If only President Obama were as willing to thrash the institutional barrier to his agenda during the current crisis, the archaic Senate filibuster rule!)

Most political scientists and historians see this episode as a blunder for FDR; I think keeping the New Deal intact was worth scuffing up the Supreme Court a bit.  In FDR’s time, it wasn’t clear that the New Deal would take hold and endure; only to later observers does the court packing scheme seem clumsy.  In any event, my point here is not to argue on behalf of FDR’s tactics in this given instance, but only to argue against the idea that this liberal icon was some sort of cuddly grandfather, or simply a rhetorician or only an ‘ideas guy’.  The idea that progress flows peacefully and naturally along with time– so-called ‘Whiggish’ history— is a dangerous one for progressives to adopt.  Progressive change comes often only with tough tactics, is historically contingent, and is not inevitable.

Lyndon Johnson also used the full range of political tools available to him.  As ‘Master of the Senate’ and later president, Johnson was famous for bargaining, cajoling, persuading, arm-twisting—you name it.  These well-known photographs by New York Times photographer George Tames captured what everybody called the “Johnson treatment,” the forceful personal suasion for which the Texan was famous.

Johnson, of course, was a self-made, scrappy farmer from Texas, who enacted Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, using the full range of political tactics.

Politics is rough sport; real progressive change does not come from having ‘better ideas’ than your opponents, or from being on ‘the right side of history’.  Real progressive change comes from having better ideas than your opponents and from being on the right side of history and also from tough-as-nails leadership that is willing to play hardball when appropriate.  In mathematical terms, I guess my overall point is:

(The Right Policies) x (Tough Leadership) = Progressive Change

A president can have great ideas about providing universal health care, or stopping global warming, or reforming Wall Street, but if you can’t make that 60th senator vote with you, or you can’t force needed reform of the filibuster rule, then all the good ideas in the world will get you nowhere.  Closer to home, a mayor or a city councilmember may have a nice plan to make Oakland a model city, or to radically increase public transportation in Oakland, or to bring green jobs to West Oakland, but if you cannot get the people and the institutions to move forward together—to work for rather than against change—then the ideas don’t matter.  Good policies without leadership mean nothing, or equals zero in the above equation.  Don Perata may not be FDR or LBJ, but he understands how to lead progressive reform.

So the first reason that I support Don Perata is that he knows how to lead. Oakland has suffered through four years of good ideas and good rhetoric coupled with bad leadership.  On the other hand, on issue after issue, and in negotiation after negotiation, whether against Republican legislators, Governor Schwarzenegger, and even the Bush Administration, Don Perata has delivered progressive results.  Most importantly for Oakland, he will know how to apply sustained political pressure until we get the progress the City deserves.  And we get the institutional change we need.

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