STOCKTON — Wealthy farmer Dino Cortopassi has a lot in common with Gov. Jerry Brown.
Both are in their late 70s. Both are opinionated. Both are Democrats. And both have a lot riding on Proposition 53, which would force state leaders to get voters’ approval before undertaking massive state building projects needing $2 billion or more in revenue bonds.
Cortopassi, a 79-year-old Central Valley farmer and food processor, is pouring his money into passing the ballot measure, which could upend two legacy projects for Brown: $15.7 billion to build giant water tunnels to carry Northern California water southward, and $64 billion for a high-speed rail system.
Brown, 78, is trying to stop Proposition 53. The governor, famously stingy with campaign money, is spending heavily — more than $4 million so far — to defeat Cortopassi’s ballot measure on Nov. 8.
Brown stars in a commercial that began airing statewide this week. In it, he says Proposition 53 will take away local control and drive up prices for infrastructure projects, and it “is paid for by one millionaire,” referring to Cortopassi.
Indeed, Cortopassi and his family have sunk about $5 million into the ballot effort, a sum dwarfed by the roughly $16 million total mustered by the No on 53 campaign.
In his office at his family’s Central Valley compound, its gravel drive lined with tall cypress in homage to his Tuscan roots, Cortopassi displays the adamance and single-mindedness on big state projects that got him under Brown’s skin.
Those opposing his measure are politicians and “porkers — and I don’t say that pejoratively” to hogs, which he’s raised, Cortopassi said. People who get money from big state construction projects “have a vested interest in putting in public projects.”
“They never saw a boondoggle they didn’t like,” he said.
Cortopassi’s aim with Proposition 53, he said, “is giving the people of California a voice in this runaway debt engine that the porkers and the politicians have to keep going.”
The son of an Italian immigrant, Cortopassi in his youth suffered rheumatic fever and resulting heart damage that still affects him. He persisted in being a farmer despite his family’s concerns about the impact on his health. Cortopassi started making his fortune in the 1960s by expanding from farming, becoming a leading national processor of tomatoes and other goods.
A former Republican, Cortopassi for a time gave to the billionaire and very conservative Koch brothers. He says it was to support free-market issues, and that he stopped once the Koch brothers became more overtly political.
Cortopassi became a registered Democrat last year and said he bears no personal animus to Brown.
That hasn’t stopped him from being a thorn in the side of the Brown administration on the debt issue.
In 2014, Cortopassi began running full-page newspaper ads under the heading, “Liar, liar, pants on fire,” warning of what he sees as a growing burden of state debt. As of September, California had $74 billion in general obligation bonds, and $9.7 billion in revenue bonds, which are paid for by tolls or other fees rather than general funds.
California, known for ballot initiatives that limit lawmakers’ options on public financing, requires public votes for general obligation bonds. In 2015, Cortopassi started the petition drive for Proposition 53 to require statewide votes on large state revenue bond issues as well, getting the measure on next month’s ballot.
Cortopassi opposes Brown’s plans to put 35-mile tunnels in Northern California’s Sacramento River to carry water south for farmers and cities. But Cortopassi denies his measure is about the tunnels.
“That is a falsehood, that is a lie, that is not true,” Cortopassi said. What he’s after, he said, is voter oversight of big, state building projects funded by revenue bonds.
But that’s not the way many perceive it.
Proposition 53? “The anti-Jerry Brown legacy-project” measure, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California.
“I expect that those (two) projects are motivation for both sides,” Jeffe said.
In his office, Cortopassi uses a whiteboard, stacks of different colors of poker chips, and other visual aids in making his case on the numbers of what he says is California’s growing bond debt.
He pulls out an Italian proverb as well, one he says he got from Tuscan-born farmers here as a boy.
“La matematica non e un’opinione,” Cortopassi cites. Arithmetic is not an opinion.