All The Right Moves
Author: Bill Meagher
May, 2007 Issue
Darius Anderson has a golden Rolodex, a huge art collection, many hats—and freedom from Gray Davis.
The conference room at Kenwood Investments affords quite a view. Looking out from the 16th floor, a visitor is treated to Treasure Island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. On the right, the gray of the Bay Bridge almost shines, the late afternoon sun painting the span as it stretches from the island over the rippling bay leading into the city.
On this day, a pair of tugs maneuvers a freighter past a bridge pylon, bound for Oakland, while a barge floats the opposite direction toward the Golden Gate, passing the remodeled Ferry Building just off the palm tree-bedecked Embarcadero. On the street, FedEx and UPS trucks are locked in mortal combat with Muni buses, fighting for space in the commute. It’s apropos that the man-made Treasure Island dominates the viewscape, as Kenwood Investments and Darius Anderson are spearheading a more than $1 billion redevelopment project on the island that was once the site of the 1939 World’s Fair.
The project is perhaps the best example of Anderson and his talents. Though he leads one of the premier government advocacy and lobbying firms in Sacramento, Platinum Advisors, he also has major league chops in the development game. And the Treasure Island project required his best work on both fronts.
Sonoma County resident Darius Anderson is something of a puzzle. The 42-year-old native of San Francisco carries a reputation as the ultimate insider in the rough and tumble world of state politics—but in person, he’s unassuming and claims to be the only political consultant on earth who doesn’t carry a mental inventory of all the people who’ve screwed him. He travels in the same political circles as Bill Clinton, but just got through hanging with a group of high school chums in Cuba. His dogs are Rhodesian Ridgebacks, used in some parts of the world to hunt lions, yet he also raises tortises. He has considerable personal wealth, but a friend who’s known him since he was 13 says he’s essentially the same guy he was when he was built closer to the ground.
Except he has Senator Barbara Boxer on speed dial. And he eats dinner with Fidel Castro.
Who is Darius Anderson?
He’s the former fund-raiser-in-chief for Gray Davis, the guy who was governor of California before he was kicked to the curb mid-term by a movie star Republican. Anderson is the owner of Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39, and he sits on the board of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. He collects first editions of Jack London novels, Jack London and Billy Martin memorabilia and hats. He helped bring the Graton Rancheria casino project to Rohnert Park (it was originally planned for just off Highway 37—but since that area is farmland/open space, it didn’t go over too well there), and he just left more than $100,000 on the table by walking away from his purchase of Konocti Harbor Resort, largely because neither the Lake County Board of Supervisors nor the community wanted the resort to include an Indian casino.
“No matter what the deal is, the numbers have to work out, and there was no way to make that happen in Konocti,” he explains, seated in the aforementioned room at a conference table that isn’t any longer than the last Academy Awards show. He’s shuffling four black leather coasters through his fingers. Dressed in an open-collared red and blue striped dress shirt and blue pleated trousers, his black hair is combed but not fussy, and he moves frequently in his seat.
“We had a study done [of the Lake County resort] and we talked with the community, and they made it fairly clear that they didn’t want [Indian] gaming. The new general plan doesn’t allow for residential, and the study said that it wouldn’t work without either gaming or residential. So we’re no longer in escrow.”
As he explains the deal falling out of bed, there’s no bitterness, no telltale sign that his political and developmental prowess came up short.
And what about the money Kenwood had invested in due diligence costs related to project feasibility? “I tell all of my people the money has to work or we can’t do it. I have no ego invested in the deal, I have no trouble walking away, saying that’s what it cost us to find out it wouldn’t work. I don’t fall in love with deals.”
This detached, bottom-line philosophy has served Anderson well.
What do you do when you’re the Governor’s right-hand man and your boss is handed his walking papers mid-term? If you’re Anderson, you begin a huge project on Treasure Island, start a finance business and buy a Pier 39 aquarium. You continue your political consulting business, go to Cuba and make plans to build a house in Sonoma that could be the stunt double for Jack London’s famed Wolf House—if Jack were still alive and enjoyed stainless steel appliances.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s go back to October 7, 2003, the day California Governor Gray Davis was pink-slipped by Golden State voters. While Davis licked his wounds and pondered what he could do with all his newly acquired free time, a funny thing was happening with some of the clients represented by Platinum Advisors, the political consulting firm Anderson founded.
As Davis’ number one fund-raiser and one of his closest confidants, Anderson’s political capital made him the most bankable political consultant in Sacramento. Gray not only relied upon Anderson’s formidable skills raising cash, but he also listened to Anderson’s counsel. And Anderson parlayed the relationship into a consulting practice that billed $3.9 million in 2003, the last year Davis was the state’s head honcho.
But Sacramento is a company town, and remarkably small when it comes to the nuances of politics and the ties that bind. So when Davis no longer made a living ignoring the Assembly and blurring the line between Democratic and Republican politics, some of Anderson’s clients jumped ship while pondering just what to make of the bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-Governator. When Arnold moved to Sacramento, Anderson watched more than a few dollars move out.
Perhaps “watched” isn’t accurate. Anderson took to the phones calling clients, taking temperatures, holding hands and talking about how Davis’ packed boxes might affect his clientele. “Basically, I got on the phone to take them off the hook; I didn’t want it to be awkward if they wanted to fire me. So I called them and said some things were going to change and if they wanted to leave, I understood,” Anderson explains. “And some of them did leave. Microsoft, GM and Target all left.”
There were others besides that trio and, in the end, the company dropped $1 million in billings over the next year. Former congressman Doug Bosco, who gave Anderson his start in politics by hiring him as a driver, says he was worried about Anderson after Davis got the boot. “I called to see how he was doing. After all, a lot of his business was based on his relationship with Gray, whom I also knew,” Bosco says. “But when I called Darius, he said he was fine and ready to move on. He wasn’t down; he was working on getting past it.”
Indeed, it appears Anderson and Platinum have put distance between the walking papers that Davis was handed and the bleeding off of their clients. Anderson reports that Platinum had rebuilt its client base and now bills more each year than ever before. The recall has also changed the way Anderson operates the firm. “People ask about whether we have more business since Arnold [Governor Schwarzenegger] hired Susan Kennedy as chief of staff. They assume I now have more access to the Governor because Susan and I are best friends, because I was in her wedding. But the thing is, I don’t want clients who ask me to call up the Governor and do this or do that. That’s short-term business. I want long-term clients. Before the recall, I would have taken the jobs. Now I say ‘no.’”
While there’s certainly distance between Sacramento and the cozy confines of Century City where former Governor Davis is with the law offices of Loeb and Loeb, there’s more distance between Anderson and Davis than the miles would suggest. I mention to Anderson that I asked Davis for an interview and a knowing smile crests his face. “He didn’t get back to you?”
“No,” I say. “I sent him the request in writing and spoke to his assistant. I’m sure his days aren’t filled like they were in Sacramento. I wasn’t sure whether Davis doesn’t like the press or whether his lack of reply was a product of your relationship with him.”
“Probably a little of both,” Anderson offers candidly.
Anderson offers no evidence that he and Davis are anything but collegial with each other. From the former governor’s perspective, he may not be anxious to end up in a profile of his former confidant and fundraiser. Davis is trying to make a life after politics, and the reputation that trails him is not flattering. Good government types questioned whether his office was for sale, and certainly little argument can be made that his time was for lease.
His name was linked inextricably with play for pay; that is, somebody could wind up on the favorable side of a policy or issue with the well-timed political contribution to the governor.
Everyone but the naïve knows political contributions buy access to elected officials. But political professionals like Anderson maintain that’s all it buys you, and he takes umbrage with the notion that dollars drove decisions.
“The Los Angeles Times and the San Jose Mercury News ran stories that questioned the relationship between donations and policy. I can tell you there was never any policy decision that I was aware of that was made based on a donation,” Anderson says, sounding for the first time like the polished political operative he is, slightly defensive but not angry.
He continues, explaining that finance guys don’t know policy and don’t make policy; they dial for dollars. On the other hand, policy is made by wonks, who know what things cost but can’t tell you where the money comes from. The separation of the two different operations is akin to a Chinese wall, where the two sides work independently.
Anderson’s claims of separation of church and state may be the gospel truth, but finding the converted to preach to these days is a tough search. If nothing else, the timing of contributions and issues coming within weeks of each other makes for more than loose talk in a town that’s smaller than Donald Rumsfeld’s love for the press. Almost four years removed from Davis’ removal, the chicken-and-egg question between policy and cash is, at best, unnuanced and, at worst, retail.
But $127 million doesn’t buy you what it used to. That’s the figure Anderson raised for Davis while he was governor, a figure that was a record for any governor in the country. Anderson acknowledges the sum, not really boasting but simply confirming a figure. “It was a lot of money until Arnold came to town and blew everybody out of the water. The difference is that Arnold is a natural, he can talk with people and they want to contribute, sometimes without him or anybody asking. Gray just isn’t as comfortable with people.”
The right recipe
If Davis is ill at ease with people, Anderson is right at home with them. People are ingredients to him, and his expertise is sensing which people will click. It goes beyond a marketplace sense, the pedestrian assignment of who’s buying and who’s selling. Rather, it becomes a matter of how one client might work with another. When Anderson heard the Graton Rancheria tribe was considering putting a land deal together, he introduced himself to tribe chairman Greg Sarris. It’s worth noting that Station Casinos, a Platinum Advisors client, is the tribe’s financial partner.
When Kenwood Investments lost one of its principal players, his replacement was hired away from Lennar Communities (a national home building corporation). And when Kenwood was hunting for partners for the Treasure Island project, Anderson recruited Lennar to do the residential piece of the deal. Lennar is a Platinum client.
While other CEOs may worship at the altar of Jack Welch and Tom Peters, Anderson’s gift has more to do with instincts. He’s made a life knowing who to put in which room with somebody else and when.
The Treasure Island redevelopment project, a partnership between Platinum Advisors, Lennar and Wilson Meany Sullivan (a privately owned real estate and development company), will put 6,000 new housing units on the island, along with 400 hotel rooms, 200,000 square feet of commercial and retail space and a 400-slip marina. The housing will include townhomes and high-rise condominiums with a substantial number of the units being “affordable” according to standards set by the city of San Francisco. The city is also a partner on the deal, since it’s chipping in $700 million in bonds, while Kenwood et al is in for $500 million. The developers are projecting $370 million in profit at build out, and the city gets a taste of profits after the development team clears 20 percent.
If California is the worst state in the country for gaining entitlements, then San Francisco is the worst place in the country. “It’s 100 times harder to get something done in San Francisco than anyplace else, I can tell you that for sure,” says Anderson. Bear in mind that, as he makes this pronouncement, his team won the right to develop the island in a competitive bid with two other large groups of bidders—but it didn’t hurt that Willie Brown was mayor at the time and that Gavin Newsom was mayor when it was approved. Anderson has raised cash for both men. But give him credit: He doesn’t duck the question of whether relationships helped him win the project. “Look, I know San Francisco well, and I know the players and the process. But I had to bid with everybody else. I put our team together by getting the strongest players I could find and saying, ‘This is what I want to do, do you want in?’ We still had to compete for the project.”
Platinum and Kenwood aren’t the only business pursuits on Anderson’s plate. About a year and a half ago, Anderson created Gold Bridge Capital, an investment advisory firm that will raise capital from institutional investors and make deals on their behalf. One of Gold Bridge’s clients will be Kenwood, which wants to raise a private equity fund for real estate investments.
A personal life
All work and no play is not the way Anderson rolls. He and his wife Sarah love to travel, spending time in Europe shopping for antiques for her store, Chateau Sonoma. They also travel to Hawaii and Tahoe when they get the chance. The couple has no children yet, but plan on starting a family and raising kids on their 74-acre spread in Kenwood. They’ve already built a barn on the land, where they frequently host fund-raisers for local causes as well as their own entertaining. The couple was wed there in 2001, and counted California State Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown, Jerry Brown, former State Senator John Burton, actor Joey Pantoliano and pro basketball player Vlade Divac among the guests.
The Kenwood digs are a ways from the Haight Ashbury where Anderson was born, his dad, Tom, a cop, and his mother, Eileen, a nurse. His dad also taught law enforcement administration at Golden Gate University, UC Berkeley and San Francisco State. The family moved to Novato when Anderson was in elementary school, and he and his two brothers did their growing up in Novato.
Anderson caught the political bug at an early age, serving as vice president in junior high and at Novato High School. He was a high school athlete, playing football, lacrosse and boxing at 143 pounds—and getting by in classes. Chris Weber has been a friend since Anderson was 13 years old and remembers a kid with varied interests. “Darius was always with us, playing sports and stuff. But he was always volunteering for different programs, working on campaigns, that kind of thing,” Weber says.
While attending Santa Rosa Junior College, Anderson began to find a direction. He finished his associate degree, then attended the National Park Service Law Enforcement Academy. With a few months to fill before attending USC, he chose to serve an internship at Doug Bosco’s congressional office. The time spent with Bosco turned Anderson’s attention to politics, and he dropped USC in favor of George Washington University.
While attending George Washington as a classic C student, he took charge of Bosco’s intern program and became the congressman’s driver. “I think what he wanted to do was kind of hang around and meet people,” says Bosco, who now practices environmental and regulatory law out of Santa Rosa. “I also think he wanted to use my car, which had congressional plates. So he talked me into letting him be my driver—and basically talked me out of my car.”
The relationship between Anderson and Bosco became one of student and mentor as he drove Bosco everywhere from meetings on the hill to receptions at foreign embassies. “He asked lots of questions,” Bosco says. “Darius was more street-smart than book smart, so he liked to understand how things worked. He’d want to come to meetings and take it in.”
Anderson remembers it this way: “Doug was great about explaining how he was doing things, and he was always patient with my questions. I spent a lot of time in the office trying to pick things up.”
There were times when Anderson’s skills as a driver left something to be desired, and Bosco was quick to let him know he needed to improve. “There were two or three times when he dropped me off somewhere and was supposed to come back at a certain time to pick me up, and he didn’t get there,” says Bosco, laughing at the memory. “I was old fashioned; I thought an important part of being a driver was picking me up.”
Anderson remembers as well. “One time, I dropped him off at the Palm restaurant where he was having dinner, and then went and picked up some of the interns. We headed around the corner to a bar in Georgetown. I looked at the clock and thought, ‘He won’t be done on time,’ so I figured getting there a little later was no problem. Turns out Doug was done early and, since it was the Palm, all these people kept coming by and saying ‘Do you need a ride, Congressman?’ He kept telling them no, his driver was on the way. I showed up an hour late, and he really let me have it. There were actually a couple times when I thought he was going to fire me.”
Since the car had congressional plates, it could be parked anywhere—or so Anderson believed. On the eve of a fact-finding trip to Turkey, he dropped Bosco off at home early and heard the congressman’s advice in his ear as he pulled away. “‘You should get some rest,’ Doug said,” recalls Anderson. “Instead, I grabbed some of the other interns and we headed to a club in Georgetown. About 12:30 I came out to the curb, which was next to a fire hydrant, and the car was gone. We tracked the car down and found out it would cost $120 to get it back. I didn’t have that kind of money in my account, so we had to go to an ATM where all the interns took out $20 each and loaned it to me. It took us until 3:30 to get the car, then I had to drop them off. I got home at 5 a.m., took a two-minute shower and got to Doug’s right at 6 to drive us to the airport. Our first stop was Paris, but all I could think of was how tired and hung over I was—and how I wished I listened to Doug.”
Down to business
After college, Anderson had designs on getting into business. He went to work for Phil Angelides’ development business. When Angelides became chair of the California Democratic Party in 1991, Darius joined him, becoming the youngest finance director in the Party’s history. “He taught me how to focus on details, something I wasn’t very good at,” Anderson confesses.
In 1992, Anderson moved to Southern California and called Ron Burkle at Yucaipa Companies looking for a job. A millionaire and owner of the Ralphs supermarket chain, Burkle agreed to hire Anderson but made him work in stores for a year doing a variety of jobs and learning the grocery business from the ground up. Eventually, Anderson headed up Yucaipa’s PR and politics and, after Burkle sold the chain, learned the investment business. “Ron treated me like a little brother, teaching me about business, how to treat people, how to structure deals. Up to that point, I had been trying to please everybody. But he showed me you can’t do that all the time.”
By the time Anderson had been at Yucaipa five years, Burkle was a billionaire; and it was time for Anderson to strike out on his own, and he created Platinum Advisors. The Burkle connection continued as Anderson raised funds for Bill Clinton, Burkle’s friend.
One of Anderson’s big hobbies and loves is Cuba. He leads a trip each year to the island 90 miles south of Key West, Florida, taking a combination of friends and politicos to the forbidden island. He sits on the board of the Cuba Policy Foundation and is a fan of all things Cuban. “I love the culture, the music, the art, the architecture, history, the cigars,” he says.
Willie Brown, who’s been with Anderson to the island, says Anderson is better positioned than anyone to take advantage of Cuba when the United States reverses its present policy and formally recognizes the country—something Anderson makes no bones about. “When the policy changes, I will open an office in Havana. Cuba is anxious for developers to come in and begin doing some work. Clinton could have made a push at the beginning of his second term. But they decided any move [in that direction] would make it tough on Gore in Florida when he ran. Ironically, Florida was tough on Gore anyway, depending on what you believe happened down there,” he says with a laugh.
Besides the Cuba Foundation, Anderson has spent a dozen years on the Jackie Robinson Foundation board, which raises money for education in the name of the baseball pioneer. Besides admiring Robinson, Anderson is a big baseball fan who, as a kid, hung out with the late Billy Martin before games in Oakland through a friendship with then-Yankee scout and Marin resident Gary Hughes. He’s also a huge fan of Jack London and raises funds for the Jack London Foundation, which works at preserving the memory of the writer. He’s currently awaiting the County of Sonoma’s approval to build a copy of London’s famed Wolf House on his Kenwood property.
He also chairs the National Advisory board at the Institute of Government Studies at UC Berkeley.
Former SF mayor Brown, who bills himself these days as an “eclectic pursuer of interesting things” doing radio, TV and writing a book in addition to what he refers to as “getting paid to troubleshoot,” says, “Ask Darius about his collections, you’ll be surprised.”
Indeed, Anderson collects art, Jack London first editions and memorabilia, cigars, hats and a seemingly unending string of friends. One of Anderson’s best friends is “Sopranos” actor Joe Pantoliano. Pantoliano hails from Hoboken, N.J., and has lost none of his accent as he explains his friendship with Anderson. “I’ve known him 15 years. We met through mutual friends and Darius just lights up a room,” says the well-known character actor.
“His whole thing is putting the right people together. One time, he’s doing a fund-raiser for Bill Clinton, and it’s a lot of money to get in the door, like $25,000 apiece. Anyway, it’s open seating except for two tables. One is Ron Burkle, who, of course, is a friend of the Clintons and a big backer. The other is my table. Darius has reserved my table and now people start to walk into the room, and they keep staring at me, wondering how I can afford a whole table. And now people begin to walk up to me quietly, asking me if they can sit with me, since I’m sitting right in front of the dais. I got people like Sherry Lansing and Rob Reiner walking up and saying, ‘Hey Joe, is it OK if we sit with you?’ Nobody can believe Joey Pants has this table.”
Anderson laughs when he hears the story, “You should’ve seen the look on Joey’s face. I mean, this is a big-time event, and it’s my event, so I figured why not have some fun?”
From Bosco to Joey Pants to Chris Weber, all have the same comment about Anderson: he’s loyal to a fault. “Darius is loyal above all else,” says Brown. “In politics, loyalty is a quality in short supply, but if Darius says he’s going to do something for you, it’s done.”
Winery owner Keith Kunde is another Anderson pal. “We’ve been friends for 15 years. We met when I sold him a house,” Kunde recalls. “We’ve traveled together, to Fairbanks, to Cuba a few times, to the Kentucky Derby. We’re both members of the Sonoma Club. He’s very generous, always ready to help with a charity or cause, but it’s more than that. If you were in jail in Mexico, and you called him, he would only ask, ‘How much? Where are you?’”
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