Dan Morain: Prison officers union has had a steep fall

Published: Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010

The once-mighty California Correctional Peace Officers Association has fallen far.

In 1990 and 1998, the union that represents California’s 31,000 prison officers could rightly lay claim to helping elect Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. They, in turn, helped make California correctional officers the highest-paid in the nation.

That was then, under founding president Don Novey, a savvy, fedora-wearing political operator. Now, under his successor, the tough-talking mustachioed Mike Jimenez, the union struggles.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators have cut members’ benefits. Union negotiators have stumbled at the bargaining table where they once dominated. And a jury awarded a $12.3 million judgment against the union in a defamation lawsuit last week.

Hoping to regain what it has lost, the union is trying to help elect Democrat Jerry Brown. But if Brown wins Tuesday, there is little reason he should feel obligated to reciprocate. By its own standards, the union’s effort has been weak.

Every interest group cozies up to winners. That will be especially important for public employee unions. But no union had a harder time during the Schwarzenegger years than CCPOA.

The union still spends heavily on politics, $3.3 million this year, a sum that strikes fear in most politicians. But that’s down from the $5.5 million spent in 2008, and $5 million in 2006. Dollars aside, the union’s political effort, once respected, can veer in odd ways.

The union produced a silly web ad demeaning Republican Meg Whitman (Novey backs her) as a bobblehead. Whatever the cost, it was too much. On YouTube, 51,000 people have viewed it, hardly viral in a state of 17 million registered voters.

The one television ad the union produced focuses on Whitman’s hiring and firing of an illegal immigrant housekeeper. The ad isn’t bad. But the impact of a $1.3 million ad buy is negligible in a campaign in which spending will approach $250 million.

Think back to 1998. The union spent $2 million for Davis. The union’s formula was straightforward. CCPOA drew on ties to law enforcement and aired ads aimed at swaying Central Valley moderates who can swing an election.

Cops from Fresno, Stockton and Sacramento looked into the camera and vouched that Davis would be tough on crime, undercutting Dan Lungren, who ran as a law-and-order conservative.

The union’s Whitman housekeeper ad could have been produced by any group from the left. There’s no hint that the spot was funded by people who wear badges and, as their saying goes, “Walk the toughest beat in the state.”

There’s another saying union leaders should study: “Never wound the king.” Definitely, do not embarrass a former Mr. Universe.

The union went out of its way to tweak the body-building governor by displaying billboards of him looking flabby and wearing a way-too-tight swimsuit. Upon winning re-election in 2006, Schwarzenegger saw no reason to bend to the union’s current leaders. Hence, the union operates without a contract.

At Schwarzenegger’s behest, Democratic lawmakers voted earlier this month to curb newly hired prison officers’ pension benefits.

Senate GOP leader Bob Dutton – a Republican who decries Democrats’ out-of-control spending – tried to block pension rollback.

Showing the connection between votes and campaign spending, the ham-fisted union last week spent $215,000 to help Republican Anthony Cannella win a Senate race against Democratic Assemblywoman Anna Caballero in a district that includes Merced.

The district favors Cannella, and the California Chamber of Commerce has spent $1.3 million to elect him. CCPOA’s support may or may not affect the outcome. But it’s sure to annoy Democrats who will retain control of the Legislature.

The latest pratfall came Friday when a federal jury hammered the union, awarding a $12.3 million judgment to former associates who ran an association of guards unions in other states. The verdict was bad, but details that emerged about the union’s operations were even more disturbing.

The union’s net worth has fallen from $16.5 million in 2006 to $4.7 million now, according to testimony. At the same time, the union spends on frills, including $230,000 a year for seats at Sacramento Kings games and other events at Arco Arena.

Plenty of lobby organizations buy Kings tickets. They pass out the ducats to win friends among California’s decision-makers. Not the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The union’s lobbying reports show that since 2007, it has given seats on only two occasions to legislative staffers.

David Sanders, the union’s general counsel, explained the declining bank account by saying the union has had high costs for “protecting our members” in litigation during the Schwarzenegger administration. He added that the union gives tickets to members, Boy Scouts and Little League teams.

It’s been quite a turn for the worse since 2002, when Davis signed a contract granting members a 37 percent pay raise spread over five years. Whether the union under has hit bottom is not clear.

But the once-powerful organization certainly is viewed as erratic, and it will take more than the election of a new governor to fix that.

Source: SacBee


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