Anyone who works in or around the Capitol has likely seen them in the last few months: clumps of Latino farm workers holding blue and white signs with slogans such as “Farm water=Jobs” or “If you like foreign oil, you’ll love foreign food.”
The California Latino Water Coalition is one of several groups that have sprung up in recent years as the Golden State has tried to address its water woes. But according to critics, those blue signs are hiding another color: the green of Astroturf. In politics, “Astroturfing” means creating and financing a group to make it appear to be a real grass-roots organization when, in fact, it isn’t. It is a common practice in the high-stakes world of Sacramento lobbying and communications strategy.
“The Latino Water Coalition is about as real as Schwarzenegger’s hair color,” said Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio.
Documents on file with the secretary of state show that the Coalition was formed as a nonprofit and registered by influential Sacramento lobbyist George Soares, whose A-list of about three dozen agricultural clients include the California Rice Commission, the California Cotton Growers and Ginners Associations, the Friant Water Authority, the Nisei Farmers League and The Grape and Tree Fruit League, among others.
The group has been billed as the protector of the jobs of Latino farm workers, although labor leader Dolores Huerta and others have denounced it as a front group.
Mario Santoyo, a top adviser and spokesman for the group, said the coalition receives funding from numerous sources.
“Like any other non-profit, our funding is pretty much dependent on funding we get from individuals, organizations, corporate interests. It’s whoever is interested in donating to the purpose and cause of the coalition,” said Santoyo, who also is a top executive with the Friant Water Authority.
The Coalition was registered on Dec. 29 of last year by Soares. His firm, Kahn, Soares, & Conway LLP, billed lobbying clients more than $580,000 during the first six months of this year, over 80 percent of it to agricultural clients. The mailing address listed on the Coalition’s Web sites is identical to that of Soares’ firm, located on L Street across from the Capitol.
Called on Tuesday, an employee of the firm said Soares was out of town until next week, and that he was the only person there who could discuss the Coalition with Capitol Weekly.
Santoyo said growers and other agribusiness interests support the group financially, although he said he did not know exactly who contributed or how much. He also said the group was pushing for $2 billion for “restoring the Delta ecosystem.”
Details about the Coalition are not easily obtained. The group’s Web site domain, GotWater.org, is registered to DomainsByProxy.com, a company that registers domains for clients who wish to remain anonymous. The Coalition doesn’t officially lobby on bills or give money to candidates, so it doesn’t show up on the Secretary of State’s Cal-Access online database. The Secretary of State’s records show that it was registered as a non-profit. On all of those records but one, “Coalition” is misspelled as “Coaltion,” which might reflect a single multiplied error if the forms were completed using software with an auto-fill function, according to a representative of the Secretary’s office.
The organization does not show up on the online database of non-profits maintained by the State Attorney General, or the Internal Revenue Service’s GuideStar system. However, according to Denise Azimi, a spokeswoman for the Franchise Tax Board, it’s possible that they have applied for tax exempt status with the state, and also for tax-deductable status with the IRS, but these applications have not yet gone through.
While the Coalition is hardly alone in trying to influence the direction of water policy in the state, no other group has had a more noticeable presence in the public debate. Their rallies are common and often large; an estimated 7,000 people showed up at an event they held in downtown Fresno on July 1.
The Coalition has a celebrity spokesman familiar to many people, Latino actor and comedian Paul Rodriguez. Rodriguez has given numerous rousing speeches on behalf of the group.
While he grew up in East Los Angeles, his family has roots in farming in the Central Valley, something he has often referred to in appearances. In June, he showed up on KFSN-TV News in Fresno, engaging in a shoving match with a white dairy activist—a confrontation that ended with Rodriguez being held back while yelling, “What have you done?!”
Rodriguez has rarely been quoted in press reports about the Coalition, a role that has generally gone to Santoyo. He did appear in an interview with TV commentator Sean Hannity on “The Valley that Hope Forgot,” a special Fox News live broadcast from the Central Valley. Rodriguez said President Barack Obama “cut the water off.”
According to the Fresno Bee, Rodriguez and Santoyo were to be in Washington, D.C. this week meeting with California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.
The Coalition has also had a photo montage promoting its work posted on the wall outside Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office since mid-September. When asked about the display, Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said it was there as part of the celebrations of Hispanic Heritage Month, though the governor agreed with the group’s goals.
Maviglio, a critic of the Coalition, said that Schwarzenegger was “renting” the space. In a Sept. 15 post on the Majority Report blog, where he is the most prominent contributor, Maviglio wrote that “the Latino Water Coalition is a PR front for Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest public relations agencies that has a contract to push dams, canals, and other environmentally-unfriendly ‘solutions’ in California water policy.”
Others have made similar charges. Activist blogger Lloyd Carter has been waging war against the Coalition almost from the moment they came on the scene about two years ago.
“They’ve got a lot to hide,” Carter said. “They’re just a front group.”
Santoyo did not respond to phone messages requesting further comment this week. The name and telephone number of a Burson-Marsteller employee, Patrick George, has appeared on several Coalition press releases since mid-2007, but he is not identified as a Burson employee. George said the company did not have any current connection to the Coalition.
“We’re not doing any work with the Water Coalition anymore,” George said. “I’ve volunteered some of my personal time to help the Coalition because I had a personal interest in the water issue.” Asked about his company’s past connection to the Coalition, George declined to answer.
According to Carter, the Coalition is funded mainly by large growers and other agribusiness interests in the southern Central Valley. For years, these interests have been fighting for a greater share of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the source of about two-thirds of California’s water—a solution that essentially equals dams and a peripheral canal, projects lower Central Valley farmers have been pushing for years. Environmentalists and Delta residents have been fighting against them, seeking to keep a greater share of water for the Delta ecosystem, as well as farmers and residents in northern Califo
These growers know that as multimillionaires with holdings ranging into the tens of thousands of acres they don’t make the most sympathetic of poster children, Carter said.
This is where the Latino farm workers came in, he said—to add the “human face” and “grassroots” activism that speakers at Coalition rallies often refer to.
A March 27 fundraising letter signed by Rodriguez asked for money “to manage logistics and support marchers including many unemployed farm workers.” The fundraising boxes listed were “$1,000,” “$2,500,” “$5,000 OR MORE,” and “Other.” Among the group’s goals cited in the letter were “to temporarily and immediately relieve severe Endangered Species Act standards that are preventing much needed pumping from the Delta to other regions of California.” The letter makes no mention of donations being tax deductable.
Santoyo’s employer, Friant, is a “joint powers authority comprised of 22 member districts located in Fresno, Tulare and Kern counties,” according to their Web site. He said that Friant has not given any money to the Coalition.
The Coalition’s board also includes several other members with water authorities. Treasurer Sylvia Ballin represents the city of San Fernando on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board. Southern California chairman S. R. “Al” Lopez is president of the Western Municipal Water District of Southern California. Coastal chairman Tony Estremera “has been a Santa Clara Valley Water District director since 1996,” according to the website.
The Coalition is hardly the only group that has sprung up around the water issue. The California Water Alliance formed in June as a 501c4. The group said it is largely funded by growers, but has not yet produced a list of its funders.
Another group, the Coalition Coordinator Alliance for a 21st Century Water Supply, launched in August to promote a “balanced solution” that not only includes a peripheral canal and new storage, but also promotes “restoring the Delta,” according to their website. While it does not currently list donors on its website, the group did list several in press materials when it launched. KP Public Affairs, which represents the Alliance said they will send out a list of donors upon request, and that this group includes the California Building Industry Association, the California Chamber of Commerce, the Western Growers Association and several other business groups.
“In order to attract the kind of leading statewide groups necessary to help solve the problem, the Alliance has been completely transparent about who we are, what we are asking for and why,” said Nicole Ratcliff, a spokeswoman for the Alliance from KP.
Meanwhile, the chair of the Senate Food and Agriculture Committee — a Latino himself — said that he had always disagreed with “inserting the issue of race into the discussion of water,” especially if it turns out that Latinos have merely “lent their names” to an effort run by farmers.
“I believe that the folks involved in the coalition are sincere in their desire to have an equitable water plan for California, I just think that these types of discoveries unfortunately distract from their message,” said Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter.
He added, “When it comes to water, nothing surprises me anymore.”