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Just before the Labor Day weekend, former Teamsters union president Ron Carey walked into the new federal courthouse on Pearl Street and drew up a chair at the defense table in courtroom 20B, where he is on trial for perjury.
An ex-marine and former truck driver from Queens who led his union out of a morass of mob-tied corruption before falling into disgrace himself, Carey sat grimly erect as government prosecutors told a jury that he had lied about his knowledge of an illegal fundraising scheme for his 1996 reelection campaign.
Carey's downfall came four years ago when evidence surfaced that campaign aides had run a bait and switch operation, using almost $900,000 in union funds to raise illegal contributions to pay for campaign mailings. Carey's narrow victory over opponent James P. Hoffa, son of the union's most notorious leader and designated standard-bearer for old-guard Teamsters furious over Carey's administration, was overturned; Carey was barred from the rerun election and later expelled from the union. In January, he was indicted for lying about what he knew about the fundraising scheme.
The collapse of Carey and the reform effort he nominally represented has echoed throughout the labor movement, rippling into national politics as well. The fallout was in clear evidence on Labor Day when George W. Bush, eagerly in search of union friends, flew up to Michigan to enjoy a Labor Day barbecue picnic with the state's Teamster leadership. While there he singled out current Teamsters president Hoffa for unusual praise. "You've got a good man running the Teamsters in Jimmy Hoffa," said Bush. "He's running a good union and in an aboveboard way." In case no one heard him the first time, he said it again: "An aboveboard way."
"And make no mistake about it," he told the unionists. "People are beginning to notice, particularly in Washington, D.C."
Bush's words were a twin blessing for Hoffa. One was a ringing endorsement for the Teamsters leader who is in the midst of a reelection campaign against Tom Leedham, a former warehouse worker from Oregon once closely allied with Carey. Hoffa is heavily favored, but Leedham, then almost completely unknown, won 40 percent of the vote in the rerun 1998 race, and this year's contest has Hoffa supporters nervous.
Bush also uttered the most encouraging sounds heard so far from the White House about its attitude toward Hoffa's most cherished goal, that of getting the Teamsters out from under the federal court and the Justice Department supervision that began in 1989.
The kind words didn't just jump into the president's mouth. In the weeks prior to Bush's visit, the Teamsters made an all-out push in Congress to support the administration's call to open Arctic wildlife preserves to oil drilling, insisting it would create good-paying jobs for union members. Republicans were especially cheered by the Teamster lobbying because last year the union gave its endorsement, albeit late in the race and only halfheartedly, to Al Gore. It has also quarreled with the administration about rules allowing Mexican trucks north of the border.
At 1.4 million members, the Teamsters are still the largest, mostly private-sector union in the country, and they exert even more clout through their vaunted $3 million political action committee. Upon taking office, Hoffa made a point of stating that he would break with Carey's strong alliance with the Democrats, saying the previous administration used the union as "an ATM for the Democratic Party."
The possibility that Republicans might peel away the Teamsters from the Democratic column has conservatives panting. Hoffa's biggest media advocate has long been the otherwise antilabor, right-wing columnist Robert Novak. Last week Novak cheered Bush's Teamster visit and reported additional Bush comments. "I don't know why we just don't end it," Bush reportedly said regarding the government's oversight of the union. Told that the matter was being handled by U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, Bush commented, according to Novak, "Isn't she a [Clinton administration] holdover?"
It was the second Novak swipe at White in as many months. In August, he called for White's removal, saying she had blocked the appointment of ex-prosecutor and TV pundit Joseph diGenova, as a new government appointee to the three-member Independent Review Board, which oversees the union. DiGenova, who investigated Carey in 1998 for House Republicans, "might recommend that it is time to end the monitoring," wrote Novak. Hoffa later named diGenova, whose biggest lobbying client is the American Hospital Association, as the union's own representative to the board.
But Bush and Hoffa are apparently on the same page regarding White. In a September 2 interview with The Detroit News,Hoffa said of White: "We've got this U.S. attorney who I think has been very unrealistic in terms of negotiations."
White's office, which is conducting the Carey trial, declined comment. But the Teamsters cleanup effort has defied easy political categories. The original civil racketeering lawsuit against the Teamsters Union was launched by a Republican prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani, and approved by a Republican-run Justice Department under then president George H. Bush. At the time, Democrats and labor leaders condemned the legal attack as antilabor. But the lawsuit described the Teamsters in harsh and accurate language as having made a "devil's deal" with the mob.