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When He Speaks, They Listen

In 20 years, Don Novey has built the once powerless California prison guards union into one of the most influential and richest forces in state politics.

August 21, 2000|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — It would be easy to underestimate Don Novey. It would also be dangerous.

Once an amateur boxer, Novey now moves through life at a shuffle, slowed by gimpy legs. In conversation, he veers and rambles, sometimes winking, often leaving cryptic holes in the stories he tells. Barrel-chested and never without a hat, he's like the eccentric uncle you whisper about at family reunions.

But when Novey calls, California governors and lawmakers carve out time in their schedules. When he fights legislation, odds are it's dead. When he blesses a politician with campaign cash, others invest in the candidate too. Support from Novey--including $2.1 million in donations--may have sealed the 1998 election of California's Democratic governor, Gray Davis.

Novey, 53, is president of the 29,000-member state prison guards union. Over the last 20 years, he took what he describes as a disorganized "bunch of knuckle-draggers" and made them into one of the most feared forces in California politics.

Their interests are in his blood. His father was a guard, and Novey followed him onto the catwalks 30 years ago. Like Jimmy Hoffa, who empowered the nation's truck drivers, Novey understands the importance of political influence. He has bankrolled California's formidable crime victims movement and made sure the popular "three-strikes" initiative landed on the ballot. He helped fuel California's $5-billion prison building boom and an era of lock-'em-all-up criminal sentencing that has yet to wane.

During the 1998 campaign, Novey's union--the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.--was the state's No. 1 donor to legislative races, setting a record by spending $1.9 million. When its contributions to the governor and initiative campaigns are added in, the union's total tops $5.3 million.

Novey also has stalled efforts to expand private prisons in California, neutralizing a threat to his members' jobs. And his recent alliance with three casino-wealthy California Indian tribes has the political world abuzz about the clout that such a partnership could wield.

Last week, Novey worked the aisles at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, greeting and plotting, appraising the swarms of political wannabes. A lifelong Republican, he was present for the nomination of GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush in Philadelphia as well. "You gotta go," he says. "You pick up some wonderful tricks about people in their weaker moments."

Novey says his single mission is to improve the lot of those who "walk the toughest beat in the state" at California's 33 penitentiaries.

When Novey took over as union chief in 1980, the guards were the woebegone dregs of law enforcement--comparatively underpaid, undertrained and poorly regarded.

Two decades later, correctional officers have salaries and benefits rivaling those of any public employees. With an annual budget of $19 million, the union has 12 attorneys, five lobbyists and a team of public relations consultants.

Home is a gleaming, $3-million West Sacramento headquarters with a memorial to slain officers outside. Novey created a foundation to aid families of guards killed on the job, and last year established a corrections think tank.

Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist, says admiringly that "if Don Novey ran the contractors' union, there'd be a bridge over every puddle in the state."

Other groups, such as the California Teachers Assn., have more members and fatter checkbooks. But nobody matches Novey's influence.

Allies and rivals alike credit his blending of modern campaign tools with the gut-level instincts of an old-time union boss.

For example, he sensed a long-term gain in 1991 when he made his union the first to agree to Gov. Pete Wilson's demand that state employees take a 5% pay cut. His members howled, but Wilson remembered the gesture, giving the guards an astonishing 12% raise just before he left office two years ago.

He rewards friends across the spectrum, funding liberal lesbian candidates one day and conservative, good old boys the next.

But he can be a fearsome foe. Legislators and others critical of the union agenda are targeted in glossy mailers calling them "enemies," just like the "bad guys" in the joint.

"I wear it as a badge of honor," says state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), perhaps Novey's toughest critic. "He doesn't like to be told he's wrong; it's his way or the highway. And that's no way to do public policy."

Some years back, the guards gave more than $75,000 to the opponent of state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) after Vasconcellos spoke against a $450-million bond issue to build more cells.

Vasconcellos won his race but admits Novey's message got through, prompting him to be "more precise" in his criticism. "Don's not afraid to spend on a losing cause if he thinks he'll get somebody's attention," says Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), a close friend of the union chief.

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