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COLUMN ONE

For three decades, he's been a key cog in the Capitol machine

Some state lawmakers may view Irwin Nowick as a pest, but they need him; with obsessive attention to detail, he roots out errors in labyrinthine bills before they become law.

October 10, 2013|By Chris Megerian

SACRAMENTO — Irwin Nowick enters the stately Capitol building wearing a frayed T-shirt and carpenter jeans, a flip phone hanging from a belt holster and a manila envelope stuffed with legislation and legal documents in his hands. His dark eyes are rimmed with creases, earned from long hours hunched over a computer keyboard.

The Legislature is scheduled to vet hundreds of bills and resolutions before the session ends, and it's Nowick's job to catch mistakes before they become law.

Nowick begins his rounds this quiet Friday by dropping off recommendations to ensure three different pieces of gun control legislation don't cancel each other out. Then he shuffles off to a state senator's office, where he proofreads a resolution calling on the federal government to help alleviate prison overcrowding.

After a few more twists and turns, he stops at an assemblyman's office to say he fixed an error in a bill that would expand healthcare coverage for pregnant women.

Nowick is often viewed as a pest — too focused on minutiae, too rude or too odd — but lawmakers nevertheless rely on his obsessive attention to legislative detail.

Although much of his work is unseen by the public, his role remains crucial nearly three decades after he arrived in the Capitol.

Term limits have caused constant turnover in the Legislature over the years, making his deep knowledge of politics and policy a rarity. And in a building full of people hunting for headlines, he's known for his willingness to do the unglamorous work — drafting bills, researching court cases, splicing amendments — that's an essential part of making new laws in California.

By the time Nowick, 59, leaves the Capitol, he's crisscrossed most of the building through back hallways and side stairwells, and he returns to his windowless office on the fifth floor of a building across the street.

Plastic bins filled with paper leave little space to maneuver in the cramped room. There are no less than six cups stuffed with pens and pencils on his desk. When he wants to eat lunch, he sweeps his forearm across the top to make room.

The walls are covered with framed mementos, including his law degree, and many are slightly off-kilter. In one photo, Nowick stands next to Assemblyman Dick Floyd. The late lawmaker disliked Nowick so much that he placed a piece of tape on the floor in his office known as the "Irwin line," a boundary that Nowick was not allowed to cross.

The hostility didn't seem to have bothered him.

Grinning to reveal a missing front tooth, Nowick says, "He lifted the line when he needed my help."

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Sometimes he's called "the I-Man," or simply "the I." He's notorious for his erratic behavior, such as jabbering endlessly about obscure facets of state law or walking into random offices and stuffing cookies and crackers into the pockets of the suit jacket he wears when the Legislature is in session.

He's worked for the Legislature so long, he's known some staff members since they were children tagging along to the Capitol with their parents.

Yet few people truly understand his job. Unlike many staffers, he doesn't work for a particular lawmaker. Sometimes his assistance is requested; other times he eagerly injects himself into any debate that catches his fancy, especially when it involves guns.

"He's like the Capitol cat," says Dan Reeves, chief of staff to Sen. Kevin de León. "He hangs around, and no one knows who feeds him."

Some people act busy when he comes around, or keep walking when he calls their name. They greet him with fist bumps because they don't think he washes his hands often enough.

Former state Sen. Steve Peace, who brought Nowick to the Legislature, knew he was rough around the edges when they met years ago in San Diego. He urged Nowick to take a Dale Carnegie class to improve his social skills, and was surprised at how literally Nowick took his tutoring.

As they talked on the phone one day, Nowick told Peace, "They tell us in class the appropriate time for a business conversation is two minutes. And your two minutes are up."

Then he hung up.

Despite Nowick's eccentricities, Peace and others who have worked closely with him say he's brilliant, maybe even indispensable.

"It would take a team of people to do what Irwin does on the fly walking through the building," Peace says.

Nowick is officially the "principal consultant for the Senate Rules Committee," but the label is inadequate. As Peace says, "Irwin's title has always been Irwin."

His primary responsibility is chaptering, an arcane process that ensures nothing goes awry when multiple bills modify the same section of California law. It's a crucial job in a Capitol where more than 1,000 measures pass in some years.

"This is all about making the trains work on a timely manner so you don't have train wrecks all the time," Nowick says. "That's what chaptering is all about."

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