The Oakland mayor's race officially got underway this week when candidates filed their election papers with the City Clerk's Office for the November ballot. Between now and Election Day, the candidates will be busy campaigning and raising money. But one candidate — Don Perata — won't be able to spend anywhere near as much as his competitors. The reason? Through June 30, the ex-state senator had already spent $322,000 on his mayoral campaign and can only spend another $57,000 before going over Oakland's $379,000 campaign expenditure cap for the mayor's race.
Typically, political candidates in Oakland wait to spend most of their money on mailers and other ads in the weeks immediately before an election. Indeed, it's hard to remember a circumstance in which a local candidate had spent 85 percent of the total money he's allowed to spend with four months still to go. "It's very unusual," said Ralph Kanz, former chair of the Oakland Public Ethics Commission. "I've never seen that strategy before."
A review of campaign finance records shows that Perata has spent most of his money so far on well-paid political consultants, and has little to show for it. He has only put out a few mailers and held a few events, and will have virtually no money left when the campaign starts to get heated this fall.
By contrast, one of his main rivals, Councilwoman Jean Quan, had only spent about $26,000 through June 30. Plus, Quan is sitting atop a $175,000 war chest. She also plans to continue fund-raising and city law allows her to spend $353,000 between now and November — more than six times more than Perata. Quan has raised $201,000 so far, and she said in an interview that she plans to reach the spending cap by November 2, even if she has to loan her campaign more money. She has loaned her campaign $80,000 so far, while Perata has loaned $50,000 to his.
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, the other major candidate in the race, just started raising money in the past few months after launching her mayoral bid this spring. By June 30, she had raised a little more than $50,000 and spent about $25,000. That means Kaplan can also spend more then $350,000 between now and Election Day under city law, provided that her fund-raising goes well.
Perata's profligate spending, meanwhile, raises questions as to how he expects to win this November. "It really does make one wonder what he plans to do," Kaplan said.
Is Perata simply running an inept campaign? Or is he going to rely heavily on so-called "independent expenditure" committees or political committees that he controls to help him win election. If so, then he's effectively planning to wage an illegal campaign. It is unlawful under city and state law for a candidate to coordinate with independent committees to win election. It's also illegal under city and state law for a candidate to use a political committee he controls — beyond his own campaign committee — to get elected.
As this newspaper has previously reported, Perata's use of his cancer-research ballot measure committee, Hope 2010, has already raised questions as to whether he's using that account to help him win the mayor's office (see "The Cancer in the Oakland Mayor's Race," 2/10/2010). Perata houses both the Hope 2010 campaign and his mayoral campaign in the same Oakland headquarters and he's using several of the same political consultants on both campaigns.
Perata's campaign manager Larry Tramutola did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story, but the former senator has previously maintained that he keeps the two campaigns separate. However, his continued use of the Hope 2010 account is raising more eyebrows in Oakland because he recently decided to postpone his statewide cancer-research initiative until November 2012. That means he's spending tens of thousands of dollars on consultants now (who also happen to work on his mayoral campaign) for a measure that won't go to voters for more than two years.
Perata also recently received help from a shadowy new Sacramento group — Coalition for a Safer California — that has close ties to him. The group used prison guards' union money to blanket Oakland with mailers criticizing Kaplan and Quan after they advocated for Oakland police officers to begin paying part of their pensions. "There's no way you can run for mayor of Oakland without doing mailers this fall, and that means his mailers are going be coming from other committees," Quan said of Perata. "And he's obviously using his cancer committee staffers for his mayoral campaign. It's sort of a blatant, spit-in-your face violation of all the campaign laws."
There's also the possibility that Perata merely plans to violate the city's campaign expenditure cap. If so, he might be the first, according to Dan Purnell, the longtime executive director of the Oakland Public Ethics Commission. The reason appears to be simple — the fines are costly. Violators of the city-imposed cap can be fined up to three times the amount they overspend, Purnell said. That means if Perata spends $50,000 more than the cap, he could be fined $150,000.
Finally, it should be noted that Perata has already raised more money than the expenditure limit. He's raised at least $416,000 in his mayoral bid — when counting both this year and last year. However, there is no cap on how much money he can raise. As a result, he's free to solicit as many contributions as he wants, but he won't be able to spend them on getting elected mayor this year. He will, however, be able to use the money for political expenses after the election, such as expensive trips, stays at posh hotels, and dining at fine restaurants.
In other words, if Perata tells you he needs a contribution to help him get elected this November, he's lying. He's already raised more than enough money and he can't legally spend what you give him on this year's election. However, if you want to help him live large once he's mayor, then by all means, cut him a check.