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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

Novey also has linked the guards with other causes, most notably crime victims. Each spring, the union sponsors a victims' "march on the capital," busing scores of people to Sacramento for a day of lobbying and mourning. The scene on the lawn not far from the governor's office is a moving one: rows and rows of mock white coffins, each topped with a red rose and a picture of a murder victim.

This year, Novey had an ominous message for his guests: "The debate is raging about 'three strikes,' the debate is raging about the death penalty," he said. "If you give up, if we don't show up here each year for the loved ones you've lost, the other element wins."

Harriet Salarno is always among those in the crowd. Her eldest daughter was murdered in 1979, and the tragedy made her an instant crusader for victims' rights. For years, however, she pounded at the Legislature's door and got no answer. "They used to laugh at us up here," she recalls. "We had no money, no power."

Then she met Don Novey and her world changed. Suddenly, she had a lobbyist, a political action committee, advice on how to "play hardball"--and instant clout.

That was in 1992, and today the victims' lobby is one of the most powerful in the state, knocking off "soft-on-crime" lawmakers and pushing through bills with heart-wrenching testimony that few politicians can ignore. But without Novey, Salarno says, "we'd be nowhere." He's not only the checkbook, "he's the mastermind."

Critics call the guards' alliance with victims another shrewd move that helps Novey lock up more people and create more jobs for guards. Few accusations get him more steamed than that one.

"It really sticks in my craw," he says. His interest in victims, he adds, is long-standing, beginning with service on the board of a missing children foundation and including work for a battered women's organization. "If there's one group in society that truly understands the needs of victims, it's people like us who deal with the scumbags" behind bars.

Teaming Up With Indian Tribes

It is Novey's sympathy for victims, in part, that led him to forge a new political action committee with three Indian tribes. Novey says he thought the tribes--abundantly wealthy from gambling revenue--were being exploited by consultants who "were taking them for the almighty buck."

"I see a wonderful synergy here," he says. "We're the second-class citizens of law enforcement and they've been shafted by the white man for generations."

Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga tribe and an alliance member, says some tribal members are suspicious of Novey's concern for their welfare. But Macarro believes the interest is sincere.

He's persuaded in part by Novey's passion for all things Native American. The union boss wears Indian moccasins to soothe his feet--made sore by diabetes--and he and his wife spent their 25th wedding anniversary watching the reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Macarro says Novey's knowledge of Indian culture--including the arcane nuances of acorn harvesting--exceeds that of some academics.

Novey also enjoys using Native American artifacts to make a point. Once he walked into a Capitol meeting on tribal gambling carrying an Indian staff with an animal skull mounted on top.

The alliance with tribes undoubtedly gives Novey still more muscle to shape criminal justice policy. If so, Novey says, he's only playing by the rules like all the other special interests.

"All I've ever asked is that we get to play in the ballpark with all the big guys and gals out there," he says. "They call us the 800-pound gorilla. But we're just taking care of our own like everybody else."

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