The organization controls at least seven state and federal political action committees, and leverages its money by striking alliances with other donors. The union is particularly close to the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, which owns a bustling casino in Temecula and was the largest spender on state politics in 2003, at $6.6 million.
In 1988, when Pechanga Chairman Mark Macarro was a teenager and the union was not yet a major political force, his father, Leslie, was a California Youth Authority officer. When a delinquent fled from a jail bus at County-USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, Officer Macarro gave chase. A car struck him, and he died. The union used its widows and orphans fund to help the family cover its bills.
A decade later, as the tribe's gambling profits ballooned, Novey and Macarro created the Native American and Peace Officers Political Action Committee. Since then, the committee has spent $2.37 million on political races.
The union does not win each contest it enters. But even candidates who survive union attacks have little desire to tangle with the group a second time, and every legislator can cite careers the union has ended.
"They will hugely fund an opponent and take you out," said a Democratic assemblyman who would not speak publicly, even though the union had not challenged him.
Whether or not he knew it at the time, Phil Wyman's legislative career ended in 2001 when he testified before a Senate committee against a bill by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) to limit private prisons.
Union leaders say they oppose private lockups because they believe that incarceration is fundamentally a government function. Private prison advocates contend that union officials view private lockups as a threat to their jobs. But Romero's bill would have extended restrictions on private prison companies imposed by a previous bill.
Wyman's high desert district included a private prison in California City that employs 500 people, and the Republican assemblyman viewed the issue as one of jobs. But to the union, Wyman had stepped over the line, and Novey confronted him after the hearing.
California City Mayor Larry Adams, who had come to Sacramento to support Wyman, recalled that Novey told the assemblyman: "We'll see that you don't get reelected."
Wyman declined to discuss the incident or its aftermath. But in 2001, after a redistricting, he lost a primary election fight against Republican Sharon Runner, who was campaigning to succeed her husband, then-Assemblyman George Runner.
The union paid for $209,000 in mailers, featuring broadsides against Wyman, that arrived at voters' homes just before the election. Runner won easily.
"It makes you wince," George Runner said. "Wow. They really didn't like Phil."
The union has taken a major role in electing four sitting Assembly members, including Sharon Runner and Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk), a former state parole officer and member of the guards union. It backed four other candidates who are considered sure to win seats in November.
"When you come in big, sure, it has an impact," union official Corcoran said. "It certainly makes it difficult for the other side."
No lawmaker is closer to the union than Burton. He must leave office this year because of term limits but has spent four decades in and out of the Legislature and Congress, and has shown the skill and power to derail any bill. Whether he can prevail on the labor contract remains to be seen.
Burton and Novey, a former Folsom prison guard who took over as union president in 1980, are avid readers who swap books, one-up each other about sports trivia and are political junkies who talk with authority about electoral esoterica.
Novey "is one of the more interesting guys in the Capitol," Burton said.
Their bond has served them well. Through the Senate Rules Committee, which he chairs, Burton appointed Novey to one of the upper house's few plum posts that pays a salary, the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board. Members receive $114,180 a year. The board meets once a month.
During the six years that he has been Senate president pro tem, Burton has shepherded through the Legislature six guards-sponsored bills that became law, more than any other legislator. Since 1998, he has carried bills implementing three of the union's labor contracts. He has voted against a union-sponsored bill that became law just once since 1994, and has abstained only once since becoming Senate leader.
In a recent interview, Burton said that even though he carried the bill ratifying the guards' labor contract in 2002, he was not aware of the details and cost. Though he might not have negotiated such a rich deal himself, Burton said, he is a lifelong union advocate. "It is difficult to fault a union for getting whatever contract it can get," he said.