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In the delta, Tim Donnelly blasts Jerry Brown's water policy

ElectionsPoliticsConservationTim DonnellyJerry BrownEnvironmental Issues

LODI -- As the last vestiges of the tule fog that blankets this part of the state on many winter mornings lifted from the valley floor, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly’s red, white and blue campaign bus pulled up to the American Legion hall in downtown Lodi.

The two-term assemblyman and former Minuteman leader, in the midst of a 10-day road trip through California, brought his conservative message to a small but eager audience here and opened fire on Gov. Jerry Brown.

“Our way of life is under assault by government,” Donnelly told about three dozen supporters in this city of about 63,000, bordered by farm land in three directions. “Jerry Brown’s water policies are turning rural counties into welfare counties.”

Heading south from Sacramento, the suburban sprawl from the state capital gives way to miles of young zinfandel vines in this budding wine region. There are oversize pickup trucks marked with American flags and bumpers adorned with Mitt Romney stickers, a relic of Republican electoral futility that the party is hoping to stem in 2014.

Here on the outskirts of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, there is open hostility to Brown’s plans to build massive tunnels that could divert billions of gallons of water out of the delta to farmers deeper in the Central Valley and urban areas in the southern half of the state.

Donnelly hit the sweet spot when he dismissed the governor’s plan as “a stupid idea,” calling for more dams and other forms of water storage. He blamed Brown and Washington Democrats for “a man-made water crisis and government-created drought” as he worked to weave the water issue into his overarching libertarian narrative of an overly intrusive government.

“Government has become the greatest threat to our freedom,” he said. “If you control the water, you control our destiny and you control the people.”

Donnelly’s rhetoric is strong, but he doesn’t come off as a typical firebrand. Wearing a black cowboy hat and black jacket with an embroidered American flag on the sleeve and an oversized golden eagle belt buckle cinched through his blue jeans, Donnelly is soft-spoken and self-deprecating on the stump. He opted not to use the podium and microphone provided by event organizers, causing some of the older members of his audience to strain to hear him speak.

The Republican’s campaign is seen as a long-shot bid, with Brown, who has not formally declared his candidacy, enjoying statewide approval ratings that are higher than at any time since he retook the governor’s office in 2011. Donnelly has tried to use Web-based videos to garner media attention, including one in which he says he wants to make California “the sexiest place to do business.”

Although he talked about water Tuesday morning in Lodi, Donnelly said afterward it is not likely to be the issue that moves voters at the polls this year.

“Water is a huge issue with people who are directly tied to it, but it doesn’t capture the imagination of the average voter,” he said. “Maybe we need to make water sexy again.”

And with that, Donnelly hopped onto his bus and headed on to a Stockton gun range for the next campaign event.

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anthony.york@latimes.com

@anthonyyorklat

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