The New York Times

As Teamsters Near a Vote, Hoffa Makes Final Push


November 1, 1998

As soon as James P. Hoffa entered the smoke-filled bar in South Philadelphia, 80 Teamsters burst into wild applause, with several rushing up to ask him for an autograph.

"We're first and goal to go, and we're ready to score," said Hoffa, who, as the favorite in the race for the Teamsters presidency, may soon achieve his life's ambition -- taking the helm of the union that his famous father once headed.

With ballots being mailed Monday to the union's 1.4 million members, Hoffa is on the final leg of a feverish campaign that could make him one of the United States' most prominent and powerful union leaders.

Hoffa, a 57-year-old labor lawyer from Detroit, went to Philadelphia on Thursday to receive the endorsement of the presidents of 12 area union locals, with a total of 36,000 members -- a group that he said would be crucial to cementing his victory.

One president, Paul Cardullo, had worshipful words about Hoffa's father, saying, "If Jim can be half the man his father was, that would be great for all of us Teamsters."

Though Hoffa predicts a decisive victory, some fears remain in the Hoffa camp that his main opponent, Tom Leedham, director of the union's 400,000-member warehouse division, might pull off an upset.

Hoffa has lined up endorsements from the heads of about three-fifths of the union's 526 locals, but Leedham insists that the rank-and-file members support him and that the leaders backing Hoffa will hardly raise a finger to mobilize members for Hoffa. Votes will be counted early next month, after a monthlong balloting period.

"We think we have developed real momentum; we think we can win," Leedham said. Leedham began as a long shot, but his campaigning from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. many days has turned the contest into a real race, many Teamsters say. Leedham estimates he has shaken 85,000 hands, campaigning at supermarket warehouses, fruit-packing plants, truck terminals and United Parcel Service centers.

Despite Leedham's tireless campaigning, Hoffa appears to be in a much stronger position than in 1996, when he ran against Ron Carey, the incumbent, losing 52 percent to 48 percent. But federal monitors overturned Carey's victory, ordered a rerun and later expelled Carey from the Teamsters after finding that several of his aides had diverted more than $700,000 in union money to help his campaign.

Leedham entered the race after Carey was barred from running again and has won the backing of many Carey followers. Leedham remains closely identified with Carey, who appointed him to his warehouse post.

For this rerun election, Hoffa began as the front-runner because he had the big name, the big-name endorsements, the big campaign organization and the big war chest -- his campaign has outspent Leedham's $800,000 to $200,000.

Hoffa has promised far-reaching changes if he is elected. Though he describes himself as a progressive, he promises that the Teamsters, one of the most generous donors to Democratic candidates, will become bipartisan. He pledges to unify the union after years of warring between Carey and the local leaders that the Carey forces derided as the old guard -- a group that overwhelmingly supports Hoffa.

With a motto of "Restore the Power," Hoffa is also vowing to restore the Teamsters' influence of old. His father, James Riddle Hoffa, made the Teamsters the nation's biggest, most powerful and, law-enforcement officials say, most corrupt union. His father headed the Teamsters from 1957 to 1971, went to prison for jury tampering and disappeared in 1975 in what was widely seen as a gangland murder.

"The Hoffa name is revered in this union," Hoffa said. "My father doubled and tripled drivers' wages. I want to carry on making a contribution." But Leedham has repeatedly asserted that if Hoffa wins, the union will return to its corrupt past, when union officials made common cause with mobsters, pensions funds were looted, and dissidents were beaten or worse.

"If Hoffa Jr. is elected, the Teamsters will go back to the Dark Ages," Leedham, 47, said during a campaign swing through New York on Wednesday.

Far more than the congressional races going on nationwide, Teamster politics is raw and muscular. Hardly a day goes by without Hoffa or Leedham calling each other corrupt or an empty suit.

Leedham asserts that Hoffa has cronies who care more about lining their own pockets than helping workers. But Hoffa angrily accuses Leedham of hypocrisy: "He says he's the so called reform candidate," Hoffa said, "but he was elected on Ron Carey's corruption slate, which stole $1 million from the union. He's hopelessly tied to Ron Carey."

In April, a federal election monitor came close to disqualifying Hoffa from running, because of credibility problems. The monitor, Michael Cherkasky, found that Hoffa had not testified truthfully about the source of some campaign contributions, but he nonetheless decided against barring Hoffa from the race.

Cherkasky allowed Hoffa to stay in the race, saying disqualification would be anti-democratic because it would deny members the option of electing a popular candidate. Hoffa has repeatedly insisted that his testimony was honest.

The driving force behind Leedham has been Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a Detroit-based group of several thousand workers that has long fought Teamster corruption. In 1991, the group was crucial to Carey's first victory, which he won even though he, like Leedham today, received few endorsements from local presidents.

"Leedham's gaining ground right now," said Ken Paff, national coordinator of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. "Hoffa is really relying on the officialdom, which delivers some votes, but not enough."

Hoffa is expected to do best in the Midwest and in long-haul freight -- his father's strongholds, while Leedham is expected to fare best among 180,000 United Parcel workers, who were Carey's base.

There is a third presidential candidate, John Metz, head of a St. Louis Teamsters local, who has not mounted a serious campaign, and many Teamsters predict that he will get less than 5 percent of the vote.

Paff said Leedham was an obvious choice for his group because he had vowed to involve rank-and-file workers in national negotiations and grievance procedures.

"They have entirely different concepts for unifying the union," Paff said. "Hoffa means unify the officials. Tom's concept of unity is to involve the members."

But Hoffa said his campaign, not Leedham's, was unifying Teamsters.

"I had a $10-a-person luau in Chicago that 2,000 people attended," Hoffa said. "Every weekend I have a rally with 400, 500 Teamsters. I've never heard of him getting many workers to a rally."

One of the big question marks about Hoffa is to what degree he will maintain ties with -- and be beholden to -- friends, supporters and mentors who have had run-ins with the law and to what degree he can leave them behind.

Three decades ago, he was an investor in a partnership with Allen Dorfman, a friend of his father and a mobster who looted millions of dollars from Teamster pension funds.

Today, Hoffa maintains close ties with Larry Brennan, head of the Teamsters in Michigan, the man who hired Hoffa as his executive assistant so that Hoffa could qualify to run for the Teamsters race.

Brennan had a large hand in running a union welfare fund when federal officials found $725,000 in improper expenses, including spending on golf outings and adult entertainment. Cherkasky faulted Brennan for giving union officials more than $30,000 in raises that immediately went to his re election campaign.

Hoffa angrily rejects suggestions that he is beholden to corrupt individuals, insisting that the only people he will be beholden to are the rank and file and members of his executive board slate.

"I don't think people's fears about him are warranted," said Greg Tarpinian, president of the Labor Research Association, a New York-based consulting group. "I think Jimmy is probably going to go out of his way -- like Nixon going to China -- to show that he's a serious guy when it comes to dealing with corruption."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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