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February 06, 1994|John Hurst | John Hurst is a Times staff writer. His last article for the magazine was "Why I Own a Gun," profiling Southern Californians who own firearms

John Denning is carrying an assault rifle again. He hadn't planned to. After serving as a combat Marine in Vietnam, Denning had hoped to make a living carrying nothing more lethal than a blackboard pointer. To that end, he earned an elementary-school teaching credential at Cal State Chico.

But an interesting thing happened on his way to a classroom job: Denning learned that he could make a lot more money guarding the state's prisoners than he could teaching California's children. And unlike the available teaching position, the prison job would be full time.

So the tall, easygoing Denning holds a 9-millimeter Heckler and Koch rifle as he scans a bank of prison cells arrayed in a semicircle before his control booth. He is on duty at Mule Creek State Prison in Northern California's Gold Country, one of 15 new penitentiaries opened in the past decade to house the state's mushrooming convict population.

After five years in uniform, Denning was earning $14,000 a year more than he would have as a teacher in Chico. And he could have saved himself the time, trouble and expense of a college education. California prison guards need only a high school diploma to qualify for a job that starts at $27,432 per year, jumps to $36,768 after two years and tops out at $44,676 after six years, approximately what a CHP traffic officer makes after a similar period.

"It was good when I started, but it's much better now," Denning says. Good salaries and other benefits for state prison guards did not simply drop out of the sky. They are the result of the shrewd leadership of one of their own--a former guard--and a multibillion-dollar prison construction program that created a growing demand for guards.

Don Novey, the 46-year-old president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., is known for his hard-nosed bargaining, tough-guy demeanor, belief in professionalism and a flair for PR. Novey wears a fedora, talks basic law and order and cultivates a bombastic Jimmy Hoffa image. But in interviews, the mustached, pink-cheeked union chief, a fifth-generation Californian, is soft-spoken and cautious about what he says. Novey doesn't possess high-voltage academic credentials--he has an associate of arts degree from American River College in Sacramento--but he is intelligent and erudite. Novey knows, for example, what Dostoevsky had to say about prison conditions, that they reflect society's values. He is a family man, with a wife of 23 years and three children. He speaks Polish and German and is learning Spanish. His office radio is tuned to a classical-music station. And he has learned how to tune into California's channels of power.

Novey has taken a small, listless public employees union and forged it into one of the most powerful political organizations in the state. He and the guards union pour millions of dollars into political campaign coffers. And, to the dismay of critics, they get results. For instance, the union helped put Republican Pete Wilson in the governor's office in 1990, spending nearly $1 million. In 1992--the most recent year for which data is available--the union's political action committee contributions to candidates were topped only by those from the powerhouse California Medical Assn. And the guards' largess wasn't restricted to Republicans that year. Its $60,000 contribution to the war chest of Democrat Willie Brown, the flamboyant and influential speaker of the Assembly, was the seventh-largest during his '92 reelection race.

The $1 million total to political campaigns in 1992 was only slightly more than the $992,000 handed out to politicians by the California Teachers Union, according to California Common Cause, which advocates campaign finance reform. But the guards, outnumbered 10 to 1 by the teachers, know how to get a better bang for their buck.

Common Cause says that the correctional officers' massive contributions have given them far too much power for a group of state employees. "They can exert this incredible influence to make sure they come out ahead in the salary game," maintains executive director Ruth Holton. "Why should one group of state employees have so much more influence than others simply because they happen to give more?"

Adds Vince Schiraldi, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, an organization that advocates alternatives to prison: "Why should we have the best-paid correctional officer staff in the country and not the best-paid teachers, professors, health-care workers and social service staff? It just proves that when the (guards union) said, 'Jump,' the Legislature and the governor said, 'How high?' "

Novey scoffs at such complaints, and needles the press for repeating them. "I've never seen the media attack the California Medical Assn., Arco, the California Trial Lawyers Assn. when they're doing the big spend," he says. "But once the little blue-collar worker gets up to the plate, everyone gets antsy."

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