George Vukasin, the Chairman and CEO of Peerless Coffee, and the once President of The Board Of Directors of The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, passed away over the weekend. It’s hard for me personally to think of Mr. Vukasin as ‘gone’, as much as it’s difficult for me to think of former Alameda County Counsel and friend Richard Winnie as gone. Same is true for Mary Morris Lawrence, the Oaklander who was America’s first female photo-journalist. Also for David Glover, the late Executive Director of OCCUR, the Oakland Citizen’s Committee for Urban Renewal. And there’s Jeanette Sherwin, the late community activist in Rockridge. And who (among those who really know the Soul of Oakland) can forger Sanjiv Handa, the long-time journalist who became the concience of the City of Oakland?
But one thing they all have in common but not shared with Mr. Vukasin is that they did not feel pushed away by the City of Oakland. George did, and he never stopped talking to me about it. The reason is that Vukasin (also a former Oakland City Councilmember) was boss of the Coliseum from 1883 to 1996, when he was forced out thanks to a powerplay that then-Oakland City Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente pretty much made personal against him. And how do I know this? Because, as a columnist for The Montclarion between 1993 and 1996, I was smack in the middle of it in 1995, telling both Vukasin’s and De La Fuente’s point of view – and at a time of massive political change in Oakland.
George Vukasin had, in running the Oakland Coliseum as its chairman, established for himself a true powerbase. His lifetime appointment as head of the Coliseum board (along with his ability to personally select who sits on it) was a kind of gift: once a Republican Oakland Councilmember and considered to be the next Mayor of Oakland after John Redding retired in 1976 (Lionel J. Wilson became Oakland’s first black mayor in 1977), Vukasin moved out of Oakland when he bought now-former Golden State Warriors player Rick Berry’s home in suburban Alamo, California. But Vukasin managed to take the Coliseum and build it into one of the major centers of power in Oakland, alongside the Port of Oakland and the City of Oakland itself.
As the 1990s advanced, Oakland was slowly changing from a politics that was once dominated by white Republicans to one that was mostly black, then Latino and Asian Democrats. Vuaksin held what was seen as a kind of white political power base. From that position, George managed to successfully undercut Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris’ attempt to build a Downtown Oakland arena for the Warriors. Then, Vukasin and Alameda County Supervisor Don Perata and City Manager Kocian essentially took the lead in negotiating the Raiders deal – and while they didn’t leave Elihu Harris out of it, Vukasin and the group basically left Harris in a largely ceremonial role. Thus, Mayor Harris had little incentive to want to help keep Vukasin around, even as he had a good personal relationship with him.
What happened was that then-Councilmember De La Fuente worked with Alameda County Supervisor Don Perata and others including De La Fuente staffer Lewis Cohen to craft legislation that created a robust Oakland-Alameda County joint powers authority. See, the original version of the ‘JPA’ called for just two people, the County Administrator and Oakland City Manager, to make up the organization and meet quarterly.
But after the Raiders return in 1995, and the failed effort to sell enough ‘personal seat licenses’ to pay for the $220 million bond issue related to the stadium upgrades for the football team, then-Oakland City Manager Craig Kocian and De La Fuente got Assistant City Manager Ezra Rapport to draft a master business plan that was to form an organizational blueprint for a new Coliseum ownership entity. De La Fuente’s rationale, as he told me at the time, was “it’s our money now” and referring to the fact that the City and County were on the hook for $20 million in annual payments that remain to the date of this blog post.
But Vukasin saw De La Fuente’s powerplay differently. He saw it as Ignacio’s ego run-amok (indeed, he was feared as the Oakland-based leader of a group of elected officials seen by some in the media to literally take their orders from then-Alameda County Supervisor Perata and called by the late Oakland Tribune Columnist and friend Peggy Stinette “The Perataistas” and as we had a council-manager form of government at the time, Mayor Harris was out-numbered in vote counting on a number of occasions) and wanting control over not just the Coliseum, but over relationships with the sports organizations.
Ignacio ran around telling anyone that Vukasin had the largest luxury box at the Coliseum, had waiter service, and that the City and County paid for it – not true, because Vukasin bought the box using his own money. Nonetheless, the overall feeling was that Vukasin and his hand-picked Coliseum Board was having too much fun in a venue owned by the public.
Angry over Ignacio’s brazen political actions and feeling that their efforts in building the Coliseum into one of the finest sports facilities in the country were not appreciated, the Vukasin-directed Board voted to terminate itself – in effect, doing Ignacio’s work for him. I personally asked George to fight it out, but he felt disrespected by the City of Oakland. Vukasin was out, and so much so that I could not get him to be involved in the later effort to bring the 2005 Super Bowl to Oakland. I vividly recall losing my temper with Oakland Tribune Columnist Dave Newhouse, who (during an interview
meeting at the Oakland Marriott in 1999) said that George should be heading the Super Bowl effort and not me. “Don’t you think I know that, Dave?!” I said. “He doesn’t want to do it! Why don’t you fucking get him involved! I tried! He said no, because he’s still pissed with Ignacio. Sometimes, you have to go with the person who wants to do something, and that’s me. You and I can wish all we want, but there’s reality.”
There you go.
That, and other details were, and obviously still are, fresh in my mind after the news of George’s passing. My commenting about this on Facebook led longtime Oakland politico Becky Taylor to ask me this question: “How would the Coliseum be if George Vukasin were still in charge.” A good question.
First, it’s important to understand that not just Vukasin and the Coliseum Board were gone, but so was the staff that so expertly ran the facility for so long. For the Coliseum’s life to 1995, a $1.1 million annual payment from the original bond issue that created the Coliseum in 1966 formed the fiscal foundation that paid the people who ran day-to-day operations, including maintenance.
Bob Quentella served as the Coliseum Manager – he had stewardship over buildings and the land. I regularly met with him in my role as Economic Adviser to Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris. What impressed me most about Bob and his number two Bill DeCarlo was that they had a giant color coded map of Coliseum land – one could see the five-to-ten-year plan just by looking at it. Thus, to answer Becky’s question, if Vukasin and the staff were retained, we and sports owners would know what the plans were for the Coliseum’s future – no guessing, as there is today.
Third, the plan was to hire a private sports facility management company to ‘replace’ the Coliseum staff, and with that, SMG was hired by the JPA in 1997, and with that action came a huge list of new problems.
First, SMG then didn’t know how handle the small issues that can quickly become big if one is not experienced in running a facility like the Coliseum, and set in motion a number of mistakes that Vukasin and Ouentella would have never made. SMG took to deferring maintenance at the Coliseum as a way of making sure it made money. Items like a ‘punch-list’ of 146 items (from replacement of baseboards in luxury boxes to replacement of faulty pipes) were never tended to. The Coliseum fell into such a state of disrepair that the now famous sewage backup problem reared its head. George Vukasin and Bob Ouentella would have never allowed that to happen.
Something else that would not have happened under Vukasin and Quentella was the fractured relationships between the City and the County and the Oakland Raiders, Oakland A’s, and the Golden State Warriors. George Vukasin served as a private sector buffer between Oakland and Alameda County elected officials – almost as soon as Vukasin departed did tensions between the Raiders and the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda mount.
In 1997, Al Davis and Raiders CEO Amy Trask expressed dismay over how the JPA answered their concerns over a naming rights issue, and fired off a strongly worded, though complicated letter to a number of people including me, that then-JPA lawyer and new Executive Director Deena McClain mistook as the Raiders wanting to get out of the ‘Master Lease Agreement’.
Against my personal request, McClain and then-Oakland City Attorney Jayne Williams met while then-Mayor Harris was in China, and decided to sue to the Oakland Raiders. It was a dumb decsion then, and I still hold it as stupid today – nothing personal to the parties, but Deena and Jayne were too quick to run to court at the time. George Vukasin would have never done that. His style was to work out problems over a good dinner and glass of Canadian Club whisky. It’s a personal quality the JPA has lacked until Scott McKibben was hired to be the current executive director. It’s also a style that I want Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf to copy. Libby’s a great host and can get a lot done with the owners of our teams, especially if she works with, and not against or over, McKibben.
But I digress.
If Vukasin remained, none of the problems that happened with the Golden State Warriors would have remained. Quentella and DeCarlo would have had new stadium plans under way years ago – there would have been no talk of moving. Vukasin would have been able to bring the San Francisco Bay Area Business Community to bear on the PSL problem – George would have straightened out the problem if Ignacio had let him do so, and Elihu had worked to stop De La Fuente. But on the other hand, if Vukasin had worked to share power with Mayor Harris, rather than fearing the loss of his position, he may have stuck around.
Overall, it’s a messy and complicated story. The bottom line is that George Vukasin did a lot of good work for Oakland and helped to build our city into a sports industry giant – his contributions should be remembered in some kind of way.