By Ben Christopher
SACRAMENTO — Maybe you saw the video on Facebook before it was deleted:
Glen Stailey, president of the state prison guards’ union, rails against “failed public safety policies” and “cheap political points” and announces that “it is time to bring accountability back to the state Capitol.”
Cut to a shot of the union president, with a horseshoe mustache and crew cut, sticking his finger into the center of a cross-haired bullseye, which is taped over a portrait of Democratic Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer of Carson.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association used to be a big-spending, fear-inducing behemoth in the state Capitol, but in recent years it has maintained a relatively quiet, go-along-to-get along presence there.
Those days seem to be over.
In a statement, Jones-Sawyer called the video “unconscionable” and an incitement to violence. He added that he is requesting additional security from the Assembly. In a letter provided by Jones-Sawyer’s campaign, he asked Attorney General Xavier Becerra to open an investigation.
In a statement of his own, Stailey said the “bullseye” was nothing more than an obvious visual metaphor.
“It would require a great stretch of the imagination to believe that we meant anything other than our clear intent, which was to demonstrate that we are mounting political campaigns against certain legislators,” read the statement.
Stailey removed the video anyway “to put the controversy to rest” and said he plans to repost an edited version.
With the exception of that image, the advertisement makes no direct mention of Jones-Sawyer. But the union is clearly prioritizing his ouster this November. It contributed the legal maximum of $9,400 directly to Jones-Sawyer’s rival, fellow Democrat Efren Martinez, at the end of August.
It also has dropped more than $140,000 to support Martinez through the union’s independent committee, which is not subject to legal contribution limits.
Stailey, through a spokesperson, did not respond when asked why the union was particularly targeting Jones-Sawyer, who is Black. But as chair of the Assembly public safety committee, Jones-Sawyer has tremendous influence over crime-related legislation. He is also one of the state’s more progressive lawmakers and has the endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In the mid-1990s and early-2000s, the prison guards’ union “rewarded their friends and punished their enemies” and were known for their “pugnacious, sort of offensive ads,” said Josh Page, a sociology professor at University of Minnesota who wrote a book about the union’s political activities.
But its power has since waned. Budget crunches and growing public support for a less punitive criminal justice system took the bite out of their attacks. Leadership “mellowed out” too, said Page — until Stailey landed the top job late last year.
In April, the association sent a letter urging U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to support President Trump’s plan to block coronavirus relief money to Iran — not an obvious concern for California prison guards.
These latest attacks on Jones-Sawyer — and by extension, on Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and the California Democratic Party — suggests that “they’re engaged in some of their old tactics again,” said Page.
Bill Wong, political director of the Assembly Democrats, said he cannot not remember the last time the union, or any law enforcement group, attempted to unseat an incumbent lawmaker by supporting another Democrat.
“We’ve been at general peace for a long time,” he said. Apparently that peace is over.
Ben Christopher is a political reporter for CalMatters, a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.