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When He Speaks, They Listen

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It would be easy to underestimate Don Novey. It would also be dangerous.

Once an amateur boxer, Novey now moves through life at a shuffle, slowed by gimpy legs. In conversation, he veers and rambles, sometimes winking, often leaving cryptic holes in the stories he tells. Barrel-chested and never without a hat, he’s like the eccentric uncle you whisper about at family reunions.

But when Novey calls, California governors and lawmakers carve out time in their schedules. When he fights legislation, odds are it’s dead. When he blesses a politician with campaign cash, others invest in the candidate too. Support from Novey--including $2.1 million in donations--may have sealed the 1998 election of California’s Democratic governor, Gray Davis.

Novey, 53, is president of the 29,000-member state prison guards union. Over the last 20 years, he took what he describes as a disorganized “bunch of knuckle-draggers” and made them into one of the most feared forces in California politics.

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Their interests are in his blood. His father was a guard, and Novey followed him onto the catwalks 30 years ago. Like Jimmy Hoffa, who empowered the nation’s truck drivers, Novey understands the importance of political influence. He has bankrolled California’s formidable crime victims movement and made sure the popular “three-strikes” initiative landed on the ballot. He helped fuel California’s $5-billion prison building boom and an era of lock-'em-all-up criminal sentencing that has yet to wane.

During the 1998 campaign, Novey’s union--the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.--was the state’s No. 1 donor to legislative races, setting a record by spending $1.9 million. When its contributions to the governor and initiative campaigns are added in, the union’s total tops $5.3 million.

Novey also has stalled efforts to expand private prisons in California, neutralizing a threat to his members’ jobs. And his recent alliance with three casino-wealthy California Indian tribes has the political world abuzz about the clout that such a partnership could wield.

Last week, Novey worked the aisles at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, greeting and plotting, appraising the swarms of political wannabes. A lifelong Republican, he was present for the nomination of GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush in Philadelphia as well. “You gotta go,” he says. “You pick up some wonderful tricks about people in their weaker moments.”

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Novey says his single mission is to improve the lot of those who “walk the toughest beat in the state” at California’s 33 penitentiaries.

When Novey took over as union chief in 1980, the guards were the woebegone dregs of law enforcement--comparatively underpaid, undertrained and poorly regarded.

Two decades later, correctional officers have salaries and benefits rivaling those of any public employees. With an annual budget of $19 million, the union has 12 attorneys, five lobbyists and a team of public relations consultants.

Home is a gleaming, $3-million West Sacramento headquarters with a memorial to slain officers outside. Novey created a foundation to aid families of guards killed on the job, and last year established a corrections think tank.

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Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist, says admiringly that “if Don Novey ran the contractors’ union, there’d be a bridge over every puddle in the state.”

Other groups, such as the California Teachers Assn., have more members and fatter checkbooks. But nobody matches Novey’s influence.

Allies and rivals alike credit his blending of modern campaign tools with the gut-level instincts of an old-time union boss.

For example, he sensed a long-term gain in 1991 when he made his union the first to agree to Gov. Pete Wilson’s demand that state employees take a 5% pay cut. His members howled, but Wilson remembered the gesture, giving the guards an astonishing 12% raise just before he left office two years ago.

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He rewards friends across the spectrum, funding liberal lesbian candidates one day and conservative, good old boys the next.

But he can be a fearsome foe. Legislators and others critical of the union agenda are targeted in glossy mailers calling them “enemies,” just like the “bad guys” in the joint.

“I wear it as a badge of honor,” says state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), perhaps Novey’s toughest critic. “He doesn’t like to be told he’s wrong; it’s his way or the highway. And that’s no way to do public policy.”

Some years back, the guards gave more than $75,000 to the opponent of state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) after Vasconcellos spoke against a $450-million bond issue to build more cells.

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Vasconcellos won his race but admits Novey’s message got through, prompting him to be “more precise” in his criticism. “Don’s not afraid to spend on a losing cause if he thinks he’ll get somebody’s attention,” says Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), a close friend of the union chief.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

Among the first victories was the right of officers to carry concealed weapons off the job. Then came safety equipment--a baton and stab-proof vest--plus background checks and psychological screening for applicants.

Salaries began inching up too. Senior guards now earn $52,700 a year, plus another $2,000 annually if they work in a remote area. In Texas, with a prison system second in size only to California’s, a seasoned supervisor makes just $30,000 a year.

Torpedoing Threatening Bills

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While such achievements are impressive, Novey’s ability to block unfriendly legislation is perhaps more telling. Consider the bill that would have allowed the attorney general--rather than locally elected district attorneys--to investigate and prosecute abusive guards.

“The [union] torpedoed this thing,” Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer fumed when the bill died last summer, because not a single guard had been prosecuted in the killing or wounding of inmates during the past decade. When one district attorney tried, the union helped unseat him with record campaign contributions.

A similar fate has befallen Polanco’s bills intended to purge the state’s prisons of drugs, some of which are funneled in by guards. The senator wants to require searches of officers and other staff, but Novey insists only “five or 10" guards deal drugs and has argued instead for better background checks of would-be officers.

Polanco also has hit a wall with efforts to add more private prisons to the state system, groaning under severe overcrowding.

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“You go visit a legislator to talk about privatization,” says lobbyist Rod Blonien, “and when they hear [the union] is opposed you get this look like, ‘Why are you even talking to me?’ ”

There is no doubt that Novey has juice. In 1992, he gave critical help to Pete Wilson, who needed a boost in his gubernatorial duel with Dianne Feinstein. In all, the union gave Wilson more than $1.5 million over two campaigns.

But Novey does not back just Republicans, as former Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren learned in 1998. Lungren--who had enjoyed union support before and shares Novey’s passion for victims’ rights and the death penalty--was certain he had the endorsement sewn up.

Instead, Novey backed Davis, funding a phone bank and advertising in the traditionally Republican Central Valley that severely undercut Lungren’s dominance there.

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“The day the prison guards endorsed Davis was probably the last day you heard anybody seriously talk about Lungren coming from behind to win,” says Schnur, a consultant to the Lungren campaign.

Novey says Davis got the nod because Lungren had refused to take the pay cut Wilson asked of all state employees during the depth of the recession. Critics see a link to the attorney general’s investigation of abusive guards at Corcoran.

“Investigators were at Corcoran interviewing correctional officers the very day before Lungren was to be interviewed for the [union’s] endorsement,” says one former campaign aide who fears repercussions from Novey and asked not to be named. “So is it a coincidence they went with Davis?”

Despite his reputation for picking winners, Novey has been known to lose. He says his biggest blunder was the 1982 governor’s race, when the union backed Tom Bradley over then-Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian.

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After Deukmejian’s victory, Novey sent the new governor a congratulatory card and 10 pounds of kielbasa sausage. That was only the beginning, recalls Blonien, then an aide to Deukmejian. “After that, if the governor had a fund-raiser in Imperial County, Novey would be there,” atoning for his sin.

It paid off. Novey’s soon became a trusted voice as Deukmejian launched a 20-year prison building boom that has almost tripled the number of state lockups, all of which need a lot of guards.

Satisfied With a Modest Lifestyle

For all his power, Novey is a remarkably unpretentious man. He may rub elbows with presidents at fund-raisers, but he’s disinclined to eat at fancy restaurants and lives in a tract home in a Sacramento suburb. His wife, Carol, works at the post office. Free weekends are spent flying kites with the grandkids.

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As for his office, it looks like a pawnshop, brimming with hats, old boxing shoes, and assorted plaques and souvenirs. The dominant items are a pair of life-sized cardboard cutouts of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

Winning respect for the guards--and, by implication, for him--is a big part of what keeps Novey plugging away, year after year. He’s had plenty of other career opportunities--including a shot at a warden’s job in the late 1980s--but seems content to stay the course. One day, he figures, the profession he and his father loyally served will get the credit it deserves.

Toward that end, Novey and his public relations team are forever nurturing the union’s image, producing videos detailing the horrors of working behind bars and faxing an “assault alert” to the press every time a guard is stabbed, hit or splattered with an inmate’s flying feces.

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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“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.

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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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