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Video by prison guards union links campaign donations to new contract

May 22, 2011

Originally published in the LA Times , May 22, 2011
 Steve Lopez, Staff Writer 

The union spent $7 million on last year’s elections, and of the 107 candidates it endorsed, 104 were elected.

Last week, I found myself cruising the website of the California prison guards union. I was curious about whether the $7 million the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. spent on last year’s elections — including $2 million on Jerry Brown’s governor’s race alone — might have had something to do with the contract the union just scored.

And right there at, I saw a video called “Winners.”

What could that be?

When I clicked on it, the video began with a guy sprinting while carrying a long stick. I figured it was an inmate trying to pole vault over the wall in a breakout attempt.But the pole vaulter didn’t make it.

“No one clears the bar every time,” said a narrator as dramatic music swelled, like something from the Olympics.

This wasn’t a breakout attempt at a state prison after all. It really was a pole vaulter on a track somewhere.

And the point?

Like a determined athlete, the CCPOA — one of the most powerful lobbying forces in California — doesn’t quit. And its perseverance pays off.“We won big this year,” the narrator says. “Played a decisive role in electing the governor. Elected new friends in the Legislature. Made a difference for the men and women who walk the toughest beat. We win because we never quit, and that’s what makes us CCPOA.”

The video was posted in January, a post-election victory lap, and in it CCPOA officials gloat about their win at the polls, predicting many happy returns come contract time.

“We’ve had a long-term relationship with Jerry Brown,” union president Mike Jimenez says. “He’s got really good intuition … on what we need as a profession.”

“We should be able to develop a good contract with this governor,” says union lobbyist Craig Brown, “and we should have no trouble getting it ratified.”

The narrator then steps in: “Of the 107 candidates endorsed by CCPOA this election, 104 were victorious.”

And that new contract? As my colleague Jack Dolan reported, it has lots of goodies.

Would you like eight weeks of time off in a year?

Become a prison guard.

The contract also lifted the cap on unused vacation days guards can cash in when they retire — and use to sweeten the amount of their pensions. The current cost of that accumulated time, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, is $600 million.

So yeah, the guards didn’t do so bad. When the ink on the preliminary document dried in April, Gov. Brown took a beating. Republican legislators and other critics said the deal with 32,000 correctional and parole officers was a nice fat thank you for the $2-million support of the union.

The truth is somewhat more complicated. Brown says he had little choice but to lift the vacation cap because of a furlough system imposed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that makes it impossible for employees not to exceed the cap. He points out that he did negotiate a number of concessions, including increased employee contributions to pensions, and he notes that he won union support for his plan to eventually reduce the state inmate population by having low-risk offenders handled at the county level.

So maybe the union didn’t get everything it wanted, but what might it have gotten if it hadn’t spent $7 million planting new friends in the Legislature and winning big, as the video brags? With a lousy economy and a colossal budget deficit, the contract was sweet enough for an 85% ratification vote by members.

If all this stirs your blood, keep in mind that the guards were just looking out for their own interests. The real villain is the pay-to-play system. Whether it’s the public employee unions or the corporate behemoths, big money compromises public officials, dirties the water and influences votes.

CCPOA has backed some of California’s biggest tough-on-crime fear-mongering campaigns, with voters time and again choosing harsher penalties for offenders, which translate into job security for prison guards. The crime rate hasn’t gone up, says UC Santa Cruz professor Craig Haney, but we’ve built 20 new prisons in the time we’ve added one campus to the UC system, and we’ve grossly over-stuffed them with staggering numbers of drug offenders and the mentally ill, who might be better dealt with in alternative settings.

The CCPOA, meanwhile, will continue supporting politicians — usually Democrats — it considers friendly.

“I won by 22 votes, and without CCPOA I wouldn’t have been close…. They literally won this campaign for me,” State Sen. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) says on the “Winners” video regarding his election victory last November.

Sometimes CCPOA even reaches out to Republicans, provided they talk as if they want to be friends.

“I feel that CCPOA was actually critical to my election,” Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) says on the video, saying the financial support “helped us get across the finish line.”

Earlier this month, Cannella broke with fellow Republicans and cast the deciding vote when the Senate ratified the contract with the prison guards and other unions.

Friends helping friends. Chalk up another victory for the guards, who win because they never quit.

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