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.”
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.”
For Nowick, making new laws is less about a clash of ideologies than tweaking and tinkering with bill language like a puzzle.
When he latches onto an issue, he can be relentless. It’s very difficult to end a conversation with Nowick. He’s followed colleagues into bathrooms and buttonholed lawmakers accustomed to being treated with deference.
But when people finally listen to him, they often find him helpful.
“He picks up on things,” says James Schwab, a legislative consultant for Sen. Alex Padilla. “You don’t believe him at first, then you start digging and you realize, ‘This guy is right.’”
That’s what happened at the end of this year’s legislative session in September, when Nowick blew into Schwab’s office after calling him multiple times to talk about an education bill. He asked for the latest copy, Schwab recalls, and scanned dozens of pages in a few minutes.
To Schwab’s surprise, Nowick caught a phrasing error deep in the bill.
Nowick has a high tolerance for legal jargon.
“I read case law every day to see if there’s anything new and exciting out there,” he says.
He views himself as the Capitol’s guardian. When he’s not visiting his longtime girlfriend and her cocker spaniel in the Bay Area on the weekends, he’s spending long hours studying legislation and court cases around the country to map out what he thinks is the best path for bills in California.
“I’m paid to be paranoid,” says Nowick, who makes nearly $117,000 a year. “My job is to protect the house.”
Nowick was born in Brooklyn and he grew up on the north shore of Long Island. His father, Abraham, was a successful accountant and advisor to New York Mayor David Dinkins. His mother, Roslyn, was a housewife who was active in the community.
He describes his family as Americanized Jews and says he was “bar mitzvahed, the whole deal.”
He became familiar with guns when he was young and his uncles took him duck hunting, something he still enjoys.
Nowick went to Drew University in New Jersey, then took a professor’s advice and moved west for law school at the University of San Diego.
He eventually crossed paths with Steve Peace, and they worked on opposite sides of a City Council race. After Nowick’s candidate lost, Peace recalls, he offered his services to Peace by marching into his San Diego office and saying, “Irwin Nowick, reporting for duty.”
The two became close. Peace was elected to the Assembly in 1982 and, a few years later, encouraged Nowick to take a job in the Capitol. Nowick, who had grown bored working at a law firm, left for Sacramento and never looked back.
“I think it’s entertaining. I really do. It’s fascinating every day,” he says. “And you also get to do things that matter.”
Nowick has bounced from job to job in the Capitol, always gravitating toward gun issues and working on ways to regulate firearms. California’s laws are notoriously complex and technical, and Nowick invariably finds a way to get involved in any debate over them.
Not everyone has been enamored of Nowick. Former Sen. Mike Roos, who pushed assault weapons legislation in 1989, viewed him as an uncontrollable, attention-seeking gadfly.
“Every conversation was work,” Roos says. “He just comes out with both guns blazing. It’s rat-a-tat-tat.”
Nowick had better luck with former Senate leader Don Perata, who pushed new gun legislation a decade later. He says Nowick played a critical role during long debates over the bill, which changed how California classified and restricted assault weapons.
“Wallpaper would have collapsed under these conversations,” he says. “But he understood them and hung in there.”
Nowick is already working on more gun law changes he expects to come up next year, such as allowing joint ownership of firearms for married couples. He’s back at his desk researching court decisions and law review articles — piling up more papers around his office.