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  Eyes wide open
Two organizers start a firm to help clients see what they want to do.

By Cathleen Ferraro -- Bee Staff Writer

Published 5:30 a.m. PST Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2002

In the tough-knocks world of labor and environmental activism, what do veteran organizers who haven't succumbed to burnout do for the ultimate challenge?

If you're Michael Picker and Michael Perri, you plunge into one of the riskiest, exhausting endeavors around -- starting your own business.

A year ago Picker and Perri created Lincoln Crow, a Sacramento firm specializing in strategic communications. It's a description even they admit is a bit fuzzy.

"We've had a hard time pinning down what to call (what we do) because it changes for each client. Is this organizational development? Is it campaign planning? Is it (public relations)?" said Picker. "Basically, we look at ourselves as organizers, which is our historic experience."

The longtime liberal activists, both 50 years old, chose the "Lincoln" part of the name to honor Abraham Lincoln's recognition that social change starts with shaping public opinion.

"Crow" refers to the role of crows and ravens in Indian mythology as figures that topple inflexible institutions and help restore community values.

"We like a little of that subversive element," said Perri.

Lincoln Crow is on J Street across from Memorial Auditorium in two small back offices inside Kaufman Campaign Consulting.

There, Picker and Perri shoulder a variety of problems and projects for 12 clients. Among them are the expected labor and environment groups, but some surprises, too, such as Raley's supermarket chain, New York-based Amalgamated Bank and singer Willie Nelson's Farm Aid.

"Most clients have some mission about making the world a better place, so our job is to get them to be really clear about what that means," said Picker, a Southern California native who is soft-spoken, graying, calm and confident.

The tasks the duo tackle are rich with variety.

For Raley's -- one of Lincoln Crow's first clients -- Picker and Perri have organized a three-day weekend of leadership training that included camping and whitewater rafting.

They also counseled the grocery chain through aspects of a potential labor problem involving its pharmacists and now are conducting a communications audit of the West Sacramento firm.

"When we've assessed how we communicate, we've done it instinctively. But now we have an opportunity to look at this in a more strategic way to see how we reach our employees, our customers and is it effective," said Raley's spokeswoman Carolyn Konrad.

Picker and Perri also have helped the chief of the California Labor Federation write a speech delivered last April to the California Public Employees' Retirement System board.

Farm Aid hired Lincoln Crow to assist the Massachusetts-based group create a national campaign aimed at reducing factory farming in favor of sustainable family farms.

As part of that task, the local company created a series of radio spots opposing the nomination of Thomas Dorr for undersecretary of rural development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lincoln Crow also launched a long-term program of weekly conference calls between Farm Aid and family farm groups in 15 states.

"By having so many different clients, we can make incremental changes in a lot of different places," said Perri, a New Yorker whose demeanor is more high-strung than Picker's and who strives hard to express his ideas.

The two men set a billing goal for their first year in business of $250,000. But Lincoln Crow, with two staff employees and one part-time researcher, actually hit close to $400,000 in 2001. For now the partners want the firm to grow about 10 percent a year.

For years, Picker and Perri identified with a variety of jobs and callings, never thinking of themselves as entrepreneurs.

Picker's most recent position was directing the 2000 mayoral campaign for former City Councilman Rob Kerth.

Before that, Picker was a deputy state treasurer under state Treasurer Phil Angelides. In that job, which he held just one year, Picker directed the investment staff and sat on the boards of CalPERS and the California State Teachers' Retirement System.

Picker's most visible local job, however, was his six-year run as chief of staff for the late Mayor Joe Serna. There, among other things, he organized the mayor's first downtown summit, which ultimately produced the Downtown Sacramento Partnership.

Picker first came to Sacramento in the mid-1970s to work on Jerry Brown's gubernatorial campaign. Through the 1980s he built a reputation as a toxics expert, working in top spots under Brown and former Gov. George Deukmejian. Later he co-founded Toxics Assessment Group, a Sacramento firm that did environmental research work.

Over the years Picker has taken other cracks at running a small business. In the late 1970s he tried to open a restaurant in Hollywood. He got as far as negotiating a lease but ultimately abandoned the project without ever opening.

At one time Picker and a business partner owned the Sacramento News & Review name and planned to start a weekly newspaper under the moniker. That never happened, either, as Picker decided selling the name rights to the publisher of the Chico News & Review -- who already had a solid rapport with Sacramento advertisers -- was a smarter move.

Perri's career path has been very different.

Over the past 30 years, he has worked picking fruit, hanging doors, washing cars and helping villagers in Senegal build water wells and grow vegetables.

He earned a master's degree in history, worked as a newspaper reporter and an art magazine editor. In his early adulthood, Perri shunned organized labor.

"I was enough of a product of the Vietnam War era to not have faith in big organized labor. I thought of (the leadership) as cigar-smoking, middle-aged white guys," said Perri, laughing, "of which now I'm two out of three."

His perspective changed, however, and by the early 1980s Perri was trying to organize 40,000 state employees in Ohio. More recently, Perri was the chief organizer behind the effort to unionize 4,500 local health care employees in five Mercy hospitals.

He also was a leader behind the passage of a 1995 San Francisco ordinance regulating computer use to help end repetitive strain injuries. The ordinance was thrown out in a court order, but not before making headlines nationwide.

Picker and Perri, who met in 1997, initially came together as adversaries.

Perri was involved in the Justice For Janitors union campaign, which in the late 1990s targeted Sacramento City Hall. Organizers wanted Serna, a former farm worker, to persuade a nonunion maintenance firm to recognize the union.

But city officials were miffed by the organizers' tactics, which included blocking a light-rail train. So after the campaign Perri tried to remedy the ill will. His first stop was visiting Serna's chief of staff.

"Michael was very practical, and I was impressed by how easy it was to sort things out," Picker said about that first encounter with Perri.

Eventually the two men grew to like each other's talent for communicating, mobilizing folks and creating change with few resources. Over several months and many dinners, Picker and Perri became friends.

"Both of us have entrepreneurial instincts but never really played them out as (full-time) business owners," said Perri. "That's a lot of what we have in common."

About the Writer
The Bee's Cathleen Ferraro can be reached at (916) 321-1043 or cferraro@sacbee.com


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