WASHINGTON -- A bitter feud over San Joaquin River restoration has cost the advocacy group Families Protecting the Valley its executive director, former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry.
In a move that resonated all the way to Capitol Hill, Autry quietly resigned his paid, part-time position over the Madera-based group's targeting of Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. Autry now says the largely Republican farmers who founded Families Protecting the Valley seem primarily intent on undermining Radanovich.
"This is an organization that is more interested in getting even than in getting water," Autry said in an interview.
But Kole Upton, a prominent Madera County farmer and a board member of the group, disagrees with Autry's assessment.
"We are not in business to support or attack politicians," Upton said Tuesday. "We are in the business of public education."
A Sept. 28 radio ad aired on KMJ attacking Radanovich for his support of a San Joaquin River restoration bill provoked Autry's resignation from the job he had taken only several months earlier. The ad attacked Radanovich for his support of the river restoration bill, pointedly linking him to liberal Bay Area politicians.
"It singled out George Radanovich, and that's not what I signed up to do," Autry said. "Unfortunately, some people can't get past their determination to get this one person out of office."
But Autry's departure from Families Protecting the Valley, his replacement by longtime radio executive John Broeske and his intention to form a new farm-and-water organization, also reflects deeper San Joaquin Valley political currents. Republicans, in particular, confront internal struggles and a tension between compromise and vehemence.
"We want to promote actions by politicians that will sustain and enhance our water supplies in the Valley," Upton said. "Autry is more 'make friends with current legislators' -- no matter who they are."
Upton further described Autry's departure as a "mutual parting of the ways," driven by Autry's desire not to do anything that might embarrass Radanovich.
Originally founded to fight a Madera County water bank proposed a decade ago by an Enron affiliate, Families Protecting the Valley had fallen relatively quiet until recent years. Board members including Upton and prominent Valley farmers and businessmen Denis Prosperi and Robert Smittcamp reactivated the group to fight the San Joaquin River restoration effort and, more generally, advocate for irrigation water supplies.
The river restoration plan was negotiated to settle a lawsuit filed by environmental groups. Originally introduced by Radanovich in 2006, the legislation authorizes channel improvements and other work designed to permit water releases from Friant Dam and the return of a salmon population by 2013.
A former Radanovich campaign contributor, Smittcamp has now publicly vowed to support a Radanovich challenger because of the river deal. Prosperi and Upton are both equally critical of the river plan.
In June, Families Protecting the Valley contributed $3,000 to Democrat Les Marsden's long-shot challenge to Radanovich.
A two-term mayor who now has his own radio show, Autry joined Families Protecting the Valley after the group's contribution to Marsden. He said at the time that "the board assured me the organization was not going to single (Radanovich) out," and he indicated he was surprised to learn of the Sept. 28 ad.
Upton, in turn, said the organization had been paying Autry "to do things that were not getting done." There was, as well, Upton added, a "difference in philosophy" among the advocates.