Capitol Alert

This wealthy farmer is taking on Sacramento: ‘God help you if you disagree with him’

Dean “Dino” Cortopassi, a Stockton-area farmer and food processor who could undermine Gov. Jerry Brown’s Delta water project and high-speed rail in California, talks to The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board earlier this month.
Dean “Dino” Cortopassi, a Stockton-area farmer and food processor who could undermine Gov. Jerry Brown’s Delta water project and high-speed rail in California, talks to The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board earlier this month. lsterling@sacbee.com

Dean “Dino” Cortopassi, the Stockton-area farmer and food processor who could undermine Gov. Jerry Brown’s Delta water project and high-speed rail in California, leaned over a pile of paperwork in his conference room this spring, tossing bread to his black Labrador and pounding on the table.

The state Capitol, Cortopassi said, has been overrun by “porkers feeding at the public trough,” and if long-term debt is not constrained, he said his grandchildren’s generation will bear the cost. He called his November ballot initiative – a proposal to require voter approval before the state issues revenue bonds for public works projects costing more than $2 billion – his “moral obligation.”

Proposition 53, into which Cortopassi and his wife, Joan, have poured about $4.5 million, is in one way a referendum on Brown’s $15.5 billion plan to build two tunnels to divert water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south.

But to conservative interests in California, the initiative is also regarded as a bellwether. It is a test of the electorate’s appetite for future measures to blunt spending – and of a wealthy but little-known donor’s ability to compete in a heavily Democratic state.

While the initiative does not address California’s most significant long-term liabilities, including pensions and retiree health care, Cortopassi, 78, said, “It’s a goddamn start.”

Cortopassi’s initiative is opposed by Brown and the Democratic Party, as well as well-funded business and labor groups. They took note of Cortopassi in 2014, when he ran large advertisements in newspapers around the state accusing Brown and lawmakers of “profligate spending,” and they organized against him when he began circulating his initiative last year.

Gov. Jerry Brown, renewed his pitch for the Delta tunnels project in January 2016, saying opponents "are not right" about their objections.

In its official ballot argument, opponents criticize a measure “financed entirely by one multi-millionaire and his family, who are spending millions in an attempt to disrupt a single water infrastructure project.”

It’s a goddamn start.

Dean Cortopassi, proponent of Proposition 53

Cortopassi, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-libertarian-leaning Democrat, would once have appeared an unlikely adversary of Brown. He helped raise money for Brown’s campaign for attorney general in 2006. He has a photograph of Brown, while governor before from 1975 to 1983, posing with Cortopassi’s children at a fundraiser Cortopassi hosted for now-Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove.

Brown is a fiscal moderate, and Cortopassi said he held a “singular opportunity” in his final term – and with no election on the horizon – to address state spending and debt. Including pensions, health care and infrastructure costs, the Legislative Analyst’s Office in 2014 estimated long-term state liabilities of more than $340 billion.

But while Brown and lawmakers have set aside money for debt repayment and increased reserves, Brown has also made the Delta water project and high-speed rail priorities of his administration.

“He’s chosen the wrong legacy,” Cortopassi said.

Cortopassi said his own business interests would not benefit from stopping a water conveyance because some 70 percent of the tomatoes his company processes come from south of the Delta.

“If you really wanted to make a case that I’m really interested in expanding my earnings … one would conclude that I would be in favor of greater (water) exports to the south, which I’m not,” he said. “Because more than wealth or net worth or however you want to measure it, at heart I’m an environmentalist with respect to the issues of water.”

Cortopassi said he has a “deep and abiding love for the Delta,” and over the past 25 years has converted 750 acres of prime farmland into a riparian wetland.

“I have long been an environmentalist,” Cortopassi said.

The point is significant to Cortopassi, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, because “the other side is trying to portray him as this right-wing conservative. It’s pushing back against their meme that this guy is just some right-winger, and he’s not. He’s a guy who’s got some common sense and is committed to California. And that’s pretty much it.”

Cortopassi once reached further afield in his political advocacy, including to groups supported by the billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. Through the Cortopassi Institute, a nonprofit that Cortopassi operated in the 2000s, he and his wife donated millions of dollars to charter school groups and to conservative and libertarian causes, including the Institute for Humane Studies, the Center for Union Facts, Americans for Prosperity and the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Cortopassi said he gave $1 million to the Koch network but stopped attending its conferences “as they became more political.”

“My purposes were nonpolitical,” he said. “My purposes are and were for public education of the free market system.”

While establishing his wetland, Cortopassi has also invested in industries criticized by many environmentalists. In 2007, the Cortopassi Institute reported sales of nearly $10 million in various energy and mining stocks, including Valero Energy, Denison Mines, Rio Tinto PLC and Peabody Energy Corp., the St. Louis-based coal giant that filed for bankruptcy protection in April.

Asked about these investments in an interview, Cortopassi said, “Are you serious? Are you serious? You’re writing a story about (Proposition) 53 and you want to talk about things like that? ... I think we’re through.”

In the Central Valley city of Stockton, Cortopassi has gained prominence as a philanthropist. He was named Stocktonian of the Year in 2005, and in 2009 he merged the Cortopassi Institute’s remaining assets – worth $14.2 million – into the Cortopassi Family Foundation. He said he and his wife have made $33 million in charitable grants through that foundation over the past 20 years. He called the sum, which recent tax filings suggest is reasonable, a “point of reference” against the smaller amount he has spent on Proposition 53.

In the most recent three years for which tax filings were available, the foundation made millions of dollars in grants to dozens of Stockton-area organizations, ranging from schools and homeless shelters to hospital and police foundations, a Mexican heritage center, theater and opera groups and his local historical society. Through a separate foundation, Cortopassi is granting scholarships to community college students. He told The (Stockton) Record this month that he was not necessarily looking for high academic achievers, but for students with “grit” to persevere.

His own 10 grandchildren, he said, will not inherit any of his money, believing inherited money “gets in the way of people earning their self-esteem.”

Instead, Cortopassi said, “We’re giving it all away.”

I think that what my brother is doing is saying, ‘Hey, enough is enough.’

Alvin Cortopassi

Douglass Wilhoit, chief executive officer of the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce, described Cortopassi as “one of the key examples of people who are successful but remember where their roots are (and) give back to the community.”

“And he doesn’t toot his own horn,” Wilhoit said. “He kind of stays under the radar and does it from his own heart.”

Cortopassi, the son of an Italian immigrant farmer, got his start farming on 65 acres of rented land, an operation he would expand over several decades to ownership of 7,000 acres in San Joaquin County.

He said in a family history and autobiography that he learned “the discipline of money management” playing poker while enrolled at University of California, Davis. His concern about government debt was colored by the blue collar neighborhood of east Stockton where he was raised, and by a municipal bankruptcy from which the city emerged last year.

“What it truly is … is misery for the lower-middle class and most importantly for the working poor,” Cortopassi said. “That’s what we’re concerned about.”

In electoral politics, Cortopassi is untested. Since 2012, Cortopassi has engaged relatively minimally in candidate races at the state and local level, and he described himself as a “damn political rookie.”

“People who are busy running a business don’t have time for that crap,” said his brother Alvin Cortopassi. “I think that what my brother is doing is saying, ‘Hey, enough is enough.’ … I think it’s because he’s finally got fed up and said our government is going the wrong way.”

(Cortopassi’s lawsuit) seemed a little heavy-handed to me.

Jim Lynn, former land manager Towne Exploration Co.

The measure, which Cortopassi and his wife are self-financing, would likely require public approval of the Delta water project, though proponents of the project have considered ways to arrange financing that they could argue fall outside of the initiative’s provisions. To Brown, the specter of a public vote is significant. He saw his first Delta conveyance plan, a peripheral canal, falter in a referendum in 1982.

The Cortopassi measure could also complicate construction of the state’s $64 billion high-speed rail system. While voters approved the issuance of general obligation bonds for initial funding of the project in 2008, the Brown administration is considering leveraging revenue from California’s cap-and-trade program to secure further investment, potentially using revenue sources for which Cortopassi’s initiative would require a vote.

Cortopassi said he is concerned more broadly about debt. In crafting the initiative, he said “we hoped that this would extend long into the future for projects that we don’t know about yet.”

But Cortopassi has been especially critical of the water project. Once a major donor to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brown’s predecessor, Cortopassi ran advertisements in 2008 criticizing Schwarzenegger for his advocacy of a Delta conveyance. He sat on the board of Restore the Delta, an anti-tunnels group, before leaving the group at the end of 2013.

The same year that Cortopassi tore into Schwarzenegger, he filed a lawsuit accusing the state, through its management of the Delta, of allowing sediment to accumulate in local waterways, reducing their capacity to handle high flows and increasing flood risk.

Cortopassi would ultimately lose the case. But over the objections of the state, a Superior Court judge found that Cortopassi’s decades of experience in farming qualified him to testify as as an expert in hydrology and sediment science, and his arguments in the case would serve as a preview of his coming fight with Brown over the Delta water conveyance.

One Delta farmer talks about his family history and why he opposes Gov. Jerry Brown's tunnels plan.

While Brown has said the project is necessary to restore the Delta’s fragile ecosystem and to stabilize water deliveries, Cortopassi said in a deposition that the state exacerbated the fragility of Delta levees by restricting dredging and through its “long-standing lobbying to build a peripheral canal or peripheral conveyance or whatever it turns out to be.”

According to court documents, he said, “You know, it was not my life mission to take on (the Department of Water Resources)” but that “I think it’s time that we hold them accountable for what they have done.”

He’s a hardscrabble kind of guy. He came up, made his money, and when he believes in something, he puts his money where his mouth is.

Larry Ruhstaller, former San Joaquin County supervisor

The case dragged on for five years, and attorneys for Brown, then attorney general, complained about Cortopassi’s legal maneuvering. In 2009, Brown’s lawyers objected to a “fifteen-page, single-spaced” court filing submitted by Cortopassi shortly before a hearing date, accusing him of “blatant gamesmanship.”

The complaint was familiar to Jim Lynn, a former land manager for an oil and natural gas company that was once sued by Cortopassi.

In a 2006 case, Cortopassi accused Towne Exploration Co. of illegally drilling on his land, while Towne accused Cortopassi of improperly interfering with its mineral rights on the property. Lynn said Cortopassi “papered us up” with a lawsuit, distracting the company from its drilling operations.

“I’ve been doing oil and gas land work for a long time, over 30 years, and ... I don’t know that I was ever involved in anything quite like that,” Lynn said. “It seemed a little heavy-handed to me.”

The case was settled out of court.

Cortopassi is up against more influential forces in his campaign for Proposition 53. While his opponents have raised only about $1.3 million, the Democratic Party has yet to contribute heavily, and Brown holds about $19.2 million in a campaign account from which he could spend.

Cortopassi, on the other hand, said he is “just one guy.” But at 78 and “well-to-do,” he said, “I say to them, ‘Bring it on.’ 

Larry Ruhstaller, a former San Joaquin County supervisor and restaurateur who interacted with Cortopassi on the Restore the Delta board and catered some events for him, said he has not closely reviewed the initiative. But he said he would not underestimate Cortopassi.

“He’s a hardscrabble kind of guy,” Ruhstaller said. “He came up, made his money, and when he believes in something, he puts his money where his mouth is.”

He added, “And God help you if you disagree with him ... If you don’t know your stuff, he’ll chew you up and spit you out.”

Cortopassi is getting help on his initiative from Coupal and a lawyer, Kurt Oneto. But as Coupal said, “This is his show.”

When the three men were asked at an editorial board meeting at The Sacramento Bee why the measure was written to include only state projects, not projects financed by cities, counties and school districts, Cortopassi said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!”

“Since I wrote the check, I would like to answer the question,” he said. “Because I’m not trying to be perfect. I’m trying to make a start.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

Proposition 53

What it would do:

Require statewide voter approval before the state could issue or sell revenue bonds for projects that cost more than $2 billion and are managed, owned, financed or operated by the state.

Includes joint agencies formed to operate or fund a project between the state and another state or local or federal government

Prohibits dividing a project into multiple projects to avoid statewide voter approval requirements

Fiscal impact:

Fiscal impacts on the state and local governments is unknown, depending on which projects are affected, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

According to the LAO, it is unlikely very many projects would be large enough to be affected.

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