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COLUMN ONE

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

Some predicted that Novey's star would dip in recent years amid startling charges of brutality--ultimately rejected by a jury--against guards at Corcoran State Prison. On top of that, a union chapter president was convicted of child molestation and is serving six years in prison. Another was charged with homicide but never prosecuted.

Meanwhile, a group of correctional supervisors have split off and formed their own association. Their gripe: Because of overtime and superior benefits, many rank and file officers make more than the bosses to whom they report.

But Novey--who calls the maverick group "a bunch of yokels"--appears to be secure. Last year, Davis--or "Gray," as Novey calls him--appointed the union boss to the state Athletic Commission and gave his daughter a job--one she left after critics smelled a link to campaign contributions.

And this year, the governor gave the union a long-coveted prize: a 16-week training academy for correctional officers, which puts the guards on a par with some police departments.

"Our correctional officers," Davis has said, "are the final guardians of our public safety."

Assessing the Capitol Players

It's a big day in Sacramento, time to christen Democrat Bob Hertzberg as the new speaker of the state Assembly. Novey parks his gold Crown Victoria with the Gray Davis bumper sticker and wanders into a muggy reception room. While guests nibble on chopped fruit, he hovers in a corner and sizes them up from beneath the brim of his fedora.

His eye lands on Abel Maldonado, the young GOP assemblyman who later will give a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Maldonado's father, Novey says, "came here from Mexico as an itinerant worker and started a strawberry ranch. He did well for himself, now his son's up here. That's America."

Then Novey adds: "We gave the kid $50,000."

As he speaks, two lobbyists sidle up: "May I kiss the hem of your garment?" one jokes. Novey banters, but his eyes keep scanning the room.

Novey is always studying the politicians with the power to sweeten life for those who pay his union $57 a month in dues. "You look for the subtleties and the weaknesses and you feed it all into the brain," Novey says. "You don't know what you'll use when, but it helps to know stuff about people."

He knows, for example, why Scott Baugh, leader of the Assembly's minority Republicans, has the toughest grip in the capital: "Ever shake hands with him? He grew up milking cows. Look out."

He also knows why Assemblymen Herb Wesson and Thomas Calderon are escorting Hertzberg to the dais for his swearing-in: "That one's obvious: They've already got their eyes on the next speakership."

Irked by Lowly Status of Guards

Novey is not new to this business of keeping a mental dossier on those around him; he was once a spy.

Drafted into the Army in 1968, he displayed a knack for languages and wound up serving as a military counterintelligence agent in Europe. "At the time it was cutting-edge, James Bond kind of stuff," recalls Novey, whom some in the Capitol call "Columbo" after the TV detective because he speaks elliptically of his days as a spook.

Returning home to Sacramento in 1971, Novey planned to become a district attorney's investigator. But his father--a guard at Folsom--nudged him into corrections.

Joining his father at Folsom, Novey had ample opportunity to advance his studies in human behavior. The notorious Charles Manson was among his charges, but the biggest test came in his job as kitchen sergeant.

"There were a lot of knives around, and one of the [prisoners] on my crew had hatcheted up four people in Auburn Ravine," Novey recalls. "It was a challenge. Kept you on your toes."

As the years slipped by, Novey grew increasingly irked by his profession's lowly status. At the time, new guards received virtually no training--"they gave you a whistle and a set of keys and told you to get to work"--and one in four officers quit each year.

Pay and benefits were the pits. And the guards' image was humiliating: "Let's just say we weren't considered members of the A team," Novey says.

In 1980, Novey ran for union president and won. He's been in power ever since. Although he no longer works in a prison, he still receives his corrections lieutenant's salary of $59,900 and, beginning this year, gets another $60,000 a year as union chief.

At first, legislators paid little attention to the labor boss for 6,000 prison guards. Old-timers remember young Novey as an almost pathetic figure whose taste in clothing--imagine banana-yellow polyester slacks with black sandals--was legendary. Once, he testified in a tank top and his uniform pants, having come straight to the Capitol from his Folsom shift.

But Novey had a grand plan. His longtime lobbyist Jeff Thompson says: "Don had a vision of the Cinderella castle we wanted to reach, and little by little we've built the road to get there."

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