Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, opponent Phil Angelides, and Democratic legislative leaders all have one thing in common when it comes to California’s prison crisis. Each, in his way, avoids grappling with the central point of last week’s scathing federal court report on the state’s prison system. None of them, in their statements yesterday, engaged the question of who controls the prisons: The state or the union?
Schwarzenegger, in his speech to the California District Attorneys Association meeting in Newport Beach, did not address federal court special master John Hagar’s sensational charge that in eschewing his administration’s declared path of reform his chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, undermined the leadership of the state’s corrections department and in effect turned power over to the prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). Hagar said that after two years of the most productive reform in history, Schwarzenegger retreated under fire from CCPOA, which played a major role in defeating his special election initiative agenda last year and which has brandished the possibility of funding a massive advertising campaign against him this year. His Democratic challenger, Treasurer Angelides, tried to make hay out of the crisis by saying that it has occurred on Schwarzenegger’s watch, true as far as it goes.
But in the early 1990s, then state party chairman Angelides played a central role in aligning the Democratic Party with the feared guards union, which had played a major role in the narrow 1990 gubernatorial election victory of Republican Pete Wilson over Democrat Dianne Feinstein. When the Democrats regained the governorship in the late ‘90s under Gray Davis — with the help of a then record independent expenditure campaign on the Democratic candidate’s behalf by CCPOA — the union rose to even greater power over the prison system and benefited from one of the most lucrative public employee contracts ever struck, secretly negotiated by the Democratic governor’s office.
On balance, the governor had a good day, with agreement on a state budget likely to allow him to sign it into law before the constitutional deadline of July 1st. The deal was made possible — as reported here on June 22nd — by Schwarzenegger backing away from his plan to provide $23 million more in funding for county-run health care plans that take care of illegal immigrant children. This was the price of passage for legislative Republicans, who oppose such programs even though they are largely supported by local Republican elected officials.
But the prisons crisis is not going away. Fortunately for the governor, at least from a political standpoint, both major parties are culpable. Schwarzenegger called in his speech to the state’s county prosecutors for the construction of two new prisons — financed by special bonds requiring only a majority vote of the Legislature — to deal with the horribly overcrowded situation in the existing system, currently housing twice as many inmates as intended for the facilities. To aid in the easing of the overcrowding crisis, he also called for an unspecified number of community re-entry facilities to house prisoners on the verge of release, the moving of non-violent female prisoners into private correctional facilities closer to their communities to allow a female prison to become a male prison, and streamlining of state contracting procedures.
Democrats blocked Schwarzenegger’s drive earlier this year to include prison construction in his massive infrastructure bonds package, despite the prison overcrowding crisis. It’s unclear if they will support another version of this proposal now, although they may be more inclined to now with the deepening of the prison crisis.
Nothing Schwarzenegger has proposed is likely to conflict with the goals of the guards union, which will gain more members and hence more clout with the building of more prisons, as has happened throughout the big build-up of the state’s prisons over the past quarter-century.
While Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez issued a measured statement about Schwarzenegger’s plan, which also did not mention the federal court report’s charges about Schwarzenegger allowing the guards union to regain power over the prison system, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata did at least allude to the central issue by noting that “the governor has yet to appoint permanent people at the top of the Department of Corrections to institute reforms.”
Unlike the Democratic legislative leaders, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate was scathing in his criticism of Schwarzenegger. But Angelides, who has hedged on prison construction, did not offer much in the way of an alternative other than better managers, a thorough review of the situation and a top priority pledge of filling 3,000 empty jobs in the prisons. He did not say how he would pay for this. In any event, it would probably please the union.
The Democrats’ alliance at the statewide level with CCPOA goes back to the early 1990s and Angelides’ tenure as state party chairman. Alarmed by the union’s role in helping elect Republican Wilson to the governorship over Feinstein, then San Francisco’s mayor, chairman Angelides and his political director, Bob Mulholland — long a key operative for Angelides and now senior advisor in his gubernatorial campaign — set about the task of wooing the prison guards union. They began to forge close ties with then CCPOA boss Don Novey.
The guards union had emerged as an 800-pound gorilla in statewide politics and they felt that Democrats could not afford to have it as a permanent part of the Republican coalition.
By 1993, their efforts had already begun to pay off, with CCPOA officials expressing great interest in the gubernatorial candidacy of Democratic Treasurer Kathleen Brown. A Mulholland-arranged meeting did not go well, however, as Brown’s then campaign manager Teresa Vilmain somehow managed to leave Novey’s business card lying on the floor of the meeting place. CCPOA stuck with Wilson in 1994.
But the union had become a fixture at Democratic gatherings and by the mid-1990s was a regular “underwriter” of the party’s state conventions. In 1998, it was a difference-maker in Davis’s victory over Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren.
With the ascension of Davis, the union reached even greater heights of power. His 2003 recall — in which the union (whose 2002 convention featured an hours-long autograph-signing session with Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Mulholland’s dismay) remained neutral — ended that. And to the dismay of CCPOA, Schwarzenegger the friendly action movie star turned into a prison reformer. Until he stumbled badly and nearly destroyed his political career in last year’s special election, making him vulnerable as he sought re-election this year to just the sort of massive independent expenditure campaign for which the feared union has become known in elections up and down the state.