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Gov. vs. prison guards: a test of wills

Even as they try to recall Schwarzenegger, some union members wonder if it's time for a less combative stance.

September 22, 2008|Michael Rothfeld | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — A few steps from the slot machines and blackjack tables here, Mike Jimenez asked for a final show of support from the men and women who had just placed their bets on him to fight on as leader of California's once feared, still proud prison guards union.

After a series of union defeats and a contentious campaign, the combative Jimenez, 47, was easily reelected as president last week and promised he would succeed in a drive to recall Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the group's most formidable adversary.

"We will stand tall again in the Capitol," Jimenez declared, his face enlarged on television screens high above hundreds of members' heads. "I need your help here today to send a message loud enough that it can be heard in Sacramento. . . . If this governor makes us go to the mat, are we ready to go to the mat and to kick his ass, and I need you all together to say it one time. One, two, three!"

"Hell yes!" some yelled.

The decision to stay on a course of confrontation displayed the quandary facing the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. The union's 30,000 guards and parole officers have been accustomed to attacking their enemies and winning, using millions in dues-funded campaign contributions, but their approach and resolve have been tested by Schwarzenegger.

The union had gained the most rapid pay increases of any state workers in recent years, with annual salaries up to $73,000 plus overtime that routinely vaults them into six figures. After more than two years without a contract, the guards have watched helplessly as the governor has taken away treasured work rules they had won. Last year, Schwarzenegger rescinded their rights to call in sick without question and to veto many operational decisions inside prisons, which he has characterized as piggish and abusive. After the union launched the recall two weeks ago, the Republican governor, saying he would not "get intimidated by those guys," sent his political team out to cast the move as a special-interest power play.

In his formal response filed with the state last week, Schwarzenegger quoted U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), a former state senator, as saying that the officers "telegraph loud and clear: 'If you cross us, we'll take you out.' "

"The bosses want the same sweetheart deal Gov. [Gray] Davis gave them after $3 million in campaign contributions," wrote Schwarzenegger, who does not take money from the guards. "It's offensive that one special interest is using a recall to get more money."

The recall effort, which has drawn criticism from newspaper editorial boards across California, is likely to be an uphill battle despite the governor's declining approval ratings; most recalls fail.

To go forward, the union must file a petition with Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Once she approves it, more than 1 million signatures will have to be gathered within 160 days, a task consultants say could cost up to $3 million. Some guards wondered at last week's convention whether that's the best use of their dues.

Jimenez assured them it would not cost quite so much and said others might contribute.

"I need you to trust me a little bit," he said.

The implications of the struggle are significant. The union represents the single biggest presence, besides 170,000 inmates, in the state's overcrowded prisons, which are under close watch by the federal courts. Guards still decide most of their own work assignments and who gets overtime, and they consult on operational decisions.

A year ago, even the governor's top aides were maintaining that the union's cooperation was crucial to getting the system under control. That sort of talk has ended. As the relationship has deteriorated, some members have questioned Jimenez, whose penchant for swearing, long and unruly hair -- recently trimmed -- and appetite for battle have made him a singular presence in Sacramento since he took over the union in 2002.

Before the union's contract expired in 2006, the group printed toilet paper with the governor's picture and drove mobile billboards deriding him in circles around the Capitol. One billboard depicted the former bodybuilder looking overweight in a Speedo-type swimsuit, with a reference to the "fat" in government. Another cast him as a devil with horns.

Meanwhile, the union has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to state lawmakers but has fallen short of persuading them to approve a new contract or a raise. The resulting frustration has some longing for the days of Don Novey, who led the union for 22 years and was widely seen as a masterful political operator. On his watch, the union grew from a small, irrelevant band of guards to a large, moneyed force that teamed with victims' groups to fuel the state's prison-building boom.

Novey, 61, stayed out of the fray at the convention, walking around the Las Vegas Hilton in his trademark fedora one day and workout clothes the next. But his legacy was in the air.

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