Dan Morain

Dan Morain: One possibly futile gesture to keep the Kings

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Not that the Legislature is like "Animal House," but there are certain parallels, like at the end when Bluto exhorts his fraternity brothers to fight to save their cherished Delta Tau Chi, and Otter agrees:

"I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part."

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is no John Belushi. But he became somebody in the battle to keep the Sacramento Kings from moving to Seattle when he wrote a pointed letter intended to give pause to one of the Seattle investors, billionaire Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

Steinberg's gesture might be futile. The Maloof brothers, their shirttails untucked, seem intent on thumbing their noses at Sacramento. The National Basketball Association probably would rather have a franchise in the larger and more lucrative Seattle market.

But while Steinberg's gesture might be futile, it's definitely not stupid. Ballmer might not know much about California politics and the power of the California Senate leader. That could change soon.

"The individual who is trying to take away this asset and its hundreds of jobs is at the same time making a lot of money by working directly with California," Steinberg told me. "My motive is to send a message to Microsoft, and to the NBA, too."

By the standards of Senate leaders going back to the mid-1990s, Steinberg is hardly a bully. He much prefers mediation over confrontation. But he clearly can throw an elbow, as evidenced by the letter telling the California Department of General Services, which oversees contracts, to provide him with detailed information about California's dealings with Microsoft. In the letter, Steinberg noted he has "no direct role in the day-to-day management of the state's technology procurement processes." But he has "direct budget authority," and said he is concerned that the Kings' departure would affect state revenue.

He is seeking the number of contracts between the state and Microsoft, their value and the terms, and the amount that taxpayers have paid Microsoft over the past decade. In a final question, the sort that could require full public hearings to get a complete answer, he asked: "What is Microsoft Corporation's record of performance with the State of California?"

"I just smiled when I heard that," said Don Perata, who, as Steinberg's predecessor as Senate leader, knows about the power of the office. "You climb into their wallets and start rooting around. Who knows what you're going to find?"

As an East Bay politician, Perata fought to stop the Raiders football team from moving to Los Angeles and to lure them back to Oakland. Getting involved in such battles is, he said, a "no win" for a politician. But representatives must try.

"I would get in there and punch, too," Perata said. "At least, you give Microsoft a little heartburn. No one likes bad publicity."

California is a rich market for any multinational corporation. Microsoft is no exception. The suburban Seattle company won a $50.5 million contract in 2010 to provide email service for 200,000 California state employees, beating the California-grown Google.

As Senate leader, Steinberg could suggest that a budget subcommittee review the contract. No company wants to answer a politician's impertinent questions in a public setting.

Microsoft has a significant lobby operation in Sacramento, and sponsored a bill last year intended to protect Microsoft products from what it called theft. California-based Google, Apple and Hewlett-Packard opposed it, and the bill stalled. Microsoft probably shouldn't bother to have it reintroduced this year, given that presidents pro tem can kill any bill.

The NBA lobbies in Sacramento, too. Last year, it tried to shape a bill that could have cut workers' compensation costs. Such a measure could re-emerge this year.

Ballmer, a basketball fan, made a bid to buy the Seattle SuperSonics in 2008, but failed and the franchise moved to Oklahoma City. Maybe he ought to pay a little more attention to Microsoft, which is losing in markets to Apple, Google and others.

Vanity Fair magazine ran a brutal piece last year about the company and blamed Ballmer for its troubles. Forbes contributor Adam Hartung has been especially tough, calling Ballmer in a 2010 column "without a doubt the worst CEO of a large publicly traded American company today."

Microsoft's board probably cannot stop Ballmer from being part of the group that is trying to grab the basketball team from the California Senate leader's hometown. But boards do not appreciate it when their CEOs stir up controversy.

Perhaps, the board might conclude there are better ways for Microsoft and its CEO to spend its time than engaging in a food fight with the Senate leader. Steinberg, with not much to lose, might as well try to disrupt the Kings' parade to Seattle.