Dino Cortopassi is a wealthy Lodi-area olive farmer who grew up in the fertile Delta, and as he tells it, is passionate about protecting it.
In recent weeks, he has channeled that passion into an expensive and highly negative advertising campaign against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Through the ad blitz, which has cost him at least $100,000 and is centered on the capital's media market, Cortopassi has emerged as an outspoken critic of one of the governor's main policy initiatives - upgrading the state's water delivery system.
It's a turnabout for a relatively unknown figure who once gave lavishly to promote Schwarzenegger's political fortunes and even has spent time with him smoking cigars.
Cortopassi lives and works on spacious acreage on Alpine Road north of Morada that includes his house and two businesses, San Tomo Group and Lodi Farming Co. There, he grows some 1,500 acres of cherry, apples, walnuts and grapes. He also specializes in extra virgin olive oil.
In an interview, Cortopassi said he is convinced that Schwarzenegger, Southern California water districts and agricultural interests that farm land south of his in the Central Valley are conspiring to build a canal that would pipe fresh water around the Delta.
He said doing so would irreparably harm the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's ecosystem, which he says is just as important to the state as the water it provides for cities and farmers. Sensing a political threat to the region he calls home, Cortopassi moved to attack Schwarzenegger's proposal even before it has been placed before voters.
"I love it," Cortopassi said of the place he has lived all of his life. "I build habitats with my own money. It's a magnificent place."
A 71-year-old grandfather, Cortopassi and his wife of 50 years live in the house they built southeast of Lodi after buying their first piece of land. He got his start farming with his father and has built an agricultural empire that ranges from olive oil production to agribusiness lending.
He also said he has a lifelong interest in the Delta's wildlife and has created a 750-acre bird habitat. In part, it was that interest he said prompted him to act when he learned that Schwarzenegger and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein were proposing a $9.3 billion revamping of the state's water system.
Their proposal doesn't specifically allocate money for a peripheral canal, but Cortopassi said it would give the state a virtual "blank check" that the administration could use for the project.
He accuses the governor of supporting a peripheral canal as a quid pro quo with Republican lawmakers who represent farmers south of the Delta. In exchange for supporting the canal, Cortopassi reasons, Schwarzenegger would get their votes for a tax increase as a way to end the state's budget stalemate. The state has been operating without a budget since July 1.
He has taken out full-page ads in The Sacramento Bee - the latest on Tuesday - and placed commercials on local television and radio stations.
An ad that appeared earlier this month in the Bee features shattered glass over the Republican governor's face. It outlines a list of Schwarzenegger's broken promises since taking office after the 2003 recall election, including his pledges to reinvent government, stop the influence of special interests, eliminate waste and improve levees around Northern California's waterways.
"He's trying to jam through an 11th-hour scheme to build a peripheral canal - a plan to ship Northern California water to his Southern California cronies," the ad stated.
That argument worked in 1982, when voters defeated a plan to build a canal around the Delta.
The Delta is the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and is the main conduit for sending water to nearly two-thirds of Californians. The massive pumps that send the water south also are blamed for killing fish, prompting courts to severely restrict water allocations to cities and farms.
Advocates of a canal say it is needed to ensure an adequate water supply to roughly two-thirds of the state, since it would route fresh river water around the fragile ecosystem. Opponents such as Cortopassi say it would leave the Delta too salty, further endangering the ecosystem.
The better option, he said, is to create more reservoirs and increase underground water storage. The Schwarzenegger-Feinstein plan promotes both approaches.
Despite Cortopassi's claim that Schwarzenegger is supporting the canal as part of backroom deal with Republican lawmakers, it certainly hasn't worked so far.
The state Legislature set a record over the weekend for the longest budget stalemate in state history, and it shows no sign of ending. Republicans remain fixated against tax increases, even as the governor proposed a temporary, one-cent hike in the sales tax.
Senate Minority Leader Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, who represents the Lodi area, said he has not negotiated that way. Schwarzenegger said water issues do not come up in direct budget negotiations.
"We don't trade water for the budget or vice versa," the governor said in an interview with The Associated Press.
When asked if he knew Cortopassi, the governor turned to his aides and asked, "You guys know who it is?"
His aides said they were aware of the ads, but the governor reiterated that he would not trade a canal for a budget compromise.
The Schwarzenegger-Feinstein water proposal has gone nowhere since the two introduced it last month, in part because the Legislature continues to be mired in unproductive budget negotiations. The earliest any water bond could go before voters would be next year, and even then only if Schwarzenegger called a special election.
Cortopassi's crusade marks a sharp turn for the former Schwarzenegger fan.
Campaign records show Cortopassi and his wife have contributed a total of $369,600 to Schwarzenegger's election campaigns. Cortopassi said he has dined with Schwarzenegger and smoked stogies him. The governor's office confirmed that Cortopassi was a guest at a 2005 fund-raiser.
Cortopassi won't say how much he is spending to campaign against Schwarzenegger's water proposal, but records indicate it's tens of thousands.
According to a contract with KCRA-TV, Sacramento's NBC affiliate, Cortopassi spent $17,400 for commercials to run over a two-week period that ended last Thursday.
While the amount Cortopassi paid for the full-page ads in The Bee is not known, the general rate for the duration and size of his first five ads is estimated to be $83,000, said Suzanne Deegan, The Bee's national advertising manager. He ran another full-page ad on Tuesday.
Cortopassi, a former Republican who is now registered as an independent, also has hired Democratic political consultant Sandi Polka. She also works for Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, an Oakland Democrat who has a reputation for butting heads with Schwarzenegger and has offered only tepid support for the Schwarzenegger-Feinstein water plan.
In December, Cortopassi donated $250,000 to Perata's failed bid for a $6.8 billion water bond for February's presidential primary ballot. He said it's simply a coincidence that he is using Perata's consultant.
"Perata's not involved at all," Cortopassi said.
His campaign against the water proposal has incensed other farmers, some of whom have responded with ads of their own.
It's disingenuous for Cortopassi to fight the canal when part of his own wealth came from processing tomatoes grown by farmers that receive water from the Delta and would benefit from a peripheral canal, said Thomas Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District, which supplies water to 600,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties.
He suggested Cortopassi is merely trying to protect his own land in the Delta by attempting to keep the state's focus on flood protection.
"One of the questions Mr. Cortopassi needs to answer is why is he so opposed to a peripheral canal," Birmingham said. "Farmers in the Delta, including Cortopassi, want people to pay for restoration of levees to protect their farmland."
Cortopassi said he pays for levee maintenance out of his own pocket.