Unknown to most Californians, Keith Brackpool, a British-born investment banker, has become a key advisor to Gov. Gray Davis on California's water policy while simultaneously amassing a huge financial stake in the direction that policy takes.
Brackpool has bet heavily on a controversial proposal by his firm, Santa Monica-based Cadiz Inc., to extract and sell a vast amount of water stored naturally beneath the Mojave Desert.
If he is right, his plan could prove a significant boost to the development future of Southern California. If he is wrong, which some scientists fear, the plan could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars only to drain the desert and play havoc with a fragile ecosystem.
Within political circles, the 42-year-old Brackpool's dual roles as an influential insider and a potential beneficiary of state water policy have made him an object of envy, suspicion and speculation--perhaps more than any of Davis' other unofficial advisors.
"Frankly, there's been a lot of suspicion about Keith because he's a private [businessman] and yet he's become a confidant of the governor," said Mark Watton, member of the San Diego County Water Authority and the governing board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
The speed with which Brackpool has become a major player in water politics has surprised many water veterans.
"He's new on the scene of water, but he's got the governor's ear, and that makes him relevant to all discussions of water in California," said Mary-Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources and governmental affairs for the California Farm Bureau.
Urbane and well tailored, Brackpool brings the smoothness of a salesman and the engaging wit of an after-dinner raconteur to an arena more accustomed to water bureaucrats, uncompromising environmentalists and farmers in cowboy boots. His British accent marks him as an outsider, a fact he exploits by suggesting that maybe an outsider can help end the fratricidal warfare of California water politics.
In interviews and speeches, his message is that this is a particularly good time for California to tackle its water problems: There's no drought, there's no recession and there's a centrist governor in Sacramento not aligned with any particular faction. Brackpool makes no attempt to hide his impatience with his critics.
"We seem to have developed an extraordinary notion that any [water] solution requires 100% consensus to make it happen," he said in a speech last month. "We encourage and we [give incentives] to those who oppose progress. . . . We have to change the mind-set."
Brackpool and the governor's office insist that Brackpool is only one of several people to whom the governor looks for advice on settling the state's never-ending water wars.
"Absolutely there is nothing inappropriate" about Brackpool's role, said Michael Bustamante, the governor's press secretary. "He's an expert in water matters, and he can look at the issues from business, conservation and environmental standpoints and translate those very technical issues into laymen's terms."
Indeed, it is not unusual for a governor to have advisors and kitchen-cabinet pals whose businesses can make money from government decisions. But the relationship between Davis and Brackpool is unique because Brackpool seems not only to speak to the governor, but also to speak for him.
After his 1998 election, Davis appointed Brackpool to a key transition committee on water and agricultural issues. The governor has relied on the entrepreneur's advice ever since. Brackpool was one of the strategists behind the $1.9-billion water bond that state voters approved last month, and he headed the committee that raised $2 million to promote the bond.
Acquires Platform for Policy Discussion
Brackpool was also named by Davis to be co-chairman of the Governor's Commission on Building for the 21st Century, a platform that allows him to discuss both public policy issues and his own project.
"He's a real operator," said Steve Erie, history professor at UC San Diego who has served with Brackpool on the commission. "He's shrewd, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. He's out there defending Cadiz's interests at all times."
Brackpool has also taken part in delicate negotiations between state and federal officials over the future of the imperiled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, to the surprise of many people with decades of involvement in water issues.
And because of his closeness to the governor, he is in demand as a speaker by groups eager to know the governor's views on the state's water future. When Davis could not fit a speech to the Northern California Water Assn. into his schedule, the group was delighted that Brackpool gave the address, for which he was billed as a "major California water policy leader."