- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

Spend an hour with Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and you get a crash course in his brand of bipartisan union politics and, with it, a peek into how the White House is driving a wedge into organized labor.

The first thing Mr. Hoffa wanted me to know when I walked into his office on Capitol Hill (that his father once occupied) was that his union is no longer the wholly owned monopoly of the Democratic Party. His message to Democrats: "Don't take us for granted."

Although it has received little media attention, the teamsters are now donating much more money into Republican campaigns. Nearly all their campaign contributions, from labor union dues, used to go to Democrats, but this past year donations to that party dropped more than 20 percent and are expected drop lower before the 2002 elections are over.

Moreover, Mr. Hoffa's 1.4 million-member union has endorsed Republican Govs. George Pataki of New York and Bob Taft of Ohio. He is supporting GOP's Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska in his gubernatorial bid, and the teamsters have given money to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who succeeded President Bush as governor.

More surprisingly, Mr. Hoffa is considering endorsing Jeb Bush, the president's brother, for a second term as Florida's governor. "It's a possibility," he says with a slight smile on his face. "There really isn't anybody attractive running against him. We're certainly listening to what he's talking about with regard to Florida."

Mr. Hoffa then launches into a bitter denunciation of Gov. Bush's likely Democratic opponent, former Attorney General Janet Reno.

"Janet Reno is the worst attorney general this country has ever had," Mr. Hoffa said. "I thought she was one of the poorest attorneys general ever to serve in that position. She was totally unqualified for the job."

Among his critiques, Mr. Hoffa cites Miss Reno's sending Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba. But he is especially incensed about "the Justice Department consent decree the Teamsters have been under."

Mr. Hoffa never made it to first base with Miss Reno in his crusade to end the government's 13-year oversight of the Teamsters. The Bush administration, on the other hand, has a closer political relationship with the Teamsters than with any other union in the country, and a senior White House official says the administration is "seriously considering" an order to drop its oversight decree.

The president and his top advisers have had Mr. Hoffa over to the White House several times this year. He has had considerable input with Mr. Bush's appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. His union strongly lobbied for Mr. Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Mr. Hoffa lets us in on how closely his relationship with the White House has become: Next week Mr. Bush is inviting all of the Teamsters' state legislative and political coordinators to the White House, a move to further stroke the union's grassroots hierarchy and to praise Mr. Hoffa as a union leader that the president admires and can work with. "This has never happened before," a senior Hoffa adviser said of the upcoming meeting.

Mr. Hoffa also reveals that Tom Ridge, Mr. Bush's homeland security adviser, has asked him to join in a White House strategy session this week to discuss the administration's proposal to create a Department of Homeland Security.

All this has made a strong impression on Mr. Hoffa, one that the president's men hope will result in the union's endorsement in 2004. Quite frankly, the Democrats in the Clinton years did take organized labor for granted, especially the Teamsters. "We have more access to this White House than to the Clinton White House," Mr. Hoffa told me.

Meantime, the president would be delighted if Mr. Hoffa's union endorsed his brother, which appears to be the direction things are heading.

As for the 2004 presidential election, Mr. Hoffa says, "It's too early to make any decisions on that." A top Hoffa aide points out, however, that Mr. Hoffa was not eager to embrace Al Gore in 2000. While the AFL-CIO endorsed Mr. Gore unusually early in October 1999, Mr. Hoffa delayed the Teamsters endorsement until September 2000, after a surprising visit to the Republican National Convention.

Will Mr. Bush give Mr. Hoffa the prize he wants most, ending the government's oversight of his union? Insiders say it's likely to happen sometime before 2004.

Mr. Hoffa doesn't try to disguise the fact that it is his highest priority, but he is careful to say the issue has never come up in his conversations with Mr. Bush. "I haven't walked up to him and told him, but he has said some very flattering things about the way we are running our union, that we are running it in an above-board way."

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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