Why it’s dangerous to ignore alarms from Stockton

Gov. Jerry Brown appears in a series of television commercials to defeat Proposition 53, which could threaten his Delta tunnels project as well as high-speed rail.
Gov. Jerry Brown appears in a series of television commercials to defeat Proposition 53, which could threaten his Delta tunnels project as well as high-speed rail. No on Proposition 53

One lesson of this California election should already be clear: Don’t dismiss apocalyptic warnings from Stockton.

If you have a television, you’re seeing a barrage of ill-advised Stockton dismissals. Gov. Jerry Brown, labor unions and Sacramento infrastructure lobbies are trying to defeat Proposition 53 – which would require voter approval for state revenue bonds of $2 billion or more – by marginalizing it as the flawed idea of a rich, selfish Stockton farmer.

This messaging turns out to be doubly wrong, as I learned on a recent visit. For one thing, “Stockton farmer” badly underestimates Dino Cortopassi, a formidable businessman with a taste for difficult fights. For another, the political message trivializes the real trauma in the city of 300,000 in the aftermath of its municipal bankruptcy.

Cortopassi grew up on Stockton’s east side and has spent his life in the area, despite amassing a multimillion-dollar fortune that would allow him to move elsewhere. He started as a tenant farmer, borrowing to buy equipment and farm as much land as possible and plowing profits into expansion.

“I was in debt a long part of my life,” he told me. “Debt never goes away. So when you borrow, don’t forget you have to pay it back.”

Cortopassi, 79, specialized in “headache” crops – tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions – that require more labor and attention, and carry greater risk. While he identifies himself as a farmer, much of his business was in food processing. He was an early adopter of new technologies, a talented marketer, a fighter against larger food companies and powerful unions and a savvy investor, notably in Dreyer’s ice cream.

In recent years, Cortopassi watched, with fury, as his hometown fell into bankruptcy. The city accumulated all sorts of debt, often without realizing it. Then the housing market collapse crushed the city budget. Stockton had little cushion because it had borrowed aggressively to pay for public buildings, an arena and downtown improvements. The final straw was a bond that Stockton sold in 2007 to cover employee pensions. In the end, basic services had to be cut, including policing in one of the country’s most violent cities.

Cortopassi says he was frustrated that, despite the fiscal carnage, public borrowing continued, with too little attention. So he started issuing warnings – in interviews, newspaper ads and a pamphlet called “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!” – about the “Debt Dragon.”

During our half day together, Cortopassi yelled at me when I disputed the numbers he uses on state debt. But, beyond the bluster, I found him to be quite thoughtful.

Proposition 53 reflects Cortopassi’s strategic impulses. It might seem like a broadside, but California voters approve most bonds anyway, and the initiative is full of exemptions for local government projects. And Proposition 53’s requirement is so high – only bonds of $2 billion or more require voter approval – that it would only prove an obstacle to two current projects: high-speed rail and the proposed Delta water tunnels. Both of those projects face so much opposition they could die whether Proposition 53 passes or not.

Cortopassi has business interests in the Delta, so the No on 53 campaign argues that he’s acting to serve himself. He acknowledges his fervent opposition to the tunnels but says his Delta interests amount to less than 5 percent of his business empire.

When pressed, Cortopassi said that Proposition 53, like any ballot initiative, is a political document. His goal is to win a victory at the polls that forces a further reckoning with debt. “We act like we don’t have to pay debt back,” he says.

If you’re from Stockton, you know better.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at