Newsreal: Shooting yourself in the foot

The fund-raising scandal surrounding the re-election campaign of Teamster leader Ron Carey provides a huge boost to Republicans and anti-union causes everywhere.

Published October 8, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

when the Republicans were starting to despair about their political fortunes -- the campaign finance hearings are a dud, Clinton is riding high in the polls, their own party is wracked by infighting -- along comes organized labor to give them a badly needed break.

No doubt relishing its luck, the GOP-controlled committee investigating campaign finance controversies will soon begin looking into the scandal emanating from the reelection campaign of Teamster President Ron Carey. On the surface, the scandal looks to be just another sordid extension of Democratic Party fund-raising excesses. But the potential Republican rewards are much higher than a few DNC scalps: The scandal threatens to undermine one of the GOP's most ardent, and newly revived, foes -- the labor movement. And as an added bonus, the reputation of certain liberal advocacy groups may be equally tarnished.

First, the basics: In August, a federal overseer nullified Ron Carey's narrow reelection victory over James P. Hoffa (son of the mobbed-up and still-missing Jimmy Hoffa) after she discovered the Carey campaign had engaged in serious campaign irregularities. Subsequently, three top Carey advisers pleaded guilty to various charges, including running illegal contribution swaps. For instance, according to court documents, the Teamsters gave $475,000 to Citizen Action, a liberal grass-roots group with over 1 million members; in return, donations arranged by a Citizen Action fundraiser were funneled to Carey's reelection campaign. In essence, Carey's election team laundered union funds into dollars for his own campaign.

Carey claims he was not in the loop. Still, he may be disqualified from running again. Even if he runs, his reelection is far from secure, despite his victory in the recent UPS strike. And if he is booted out of office, the entire labor movement could suffer devastating consequences.

For one thing, Carey, who did much to reform the sleaze-ridden Teamsters, will immediately be portrayed as just another corrupt union boss. For Republicans, still smarting from the anti-GOP organizing role played by the AFL-CIO in the '96 election -- not to mention the $35 million it spent on advertising -- Carey will be the perfect tar baby. You can imagine the GOP ads in next year's mid-term elections: "Those same Big Labor leaders who are attacking Republicans stood right behind a corrupt union boss who the U.S. government said was too crooked to run his union."

The ripples spread beyond Carey and the Teamsters. John Sweeney and his slate won control of the AFL-CIO in a tight election, largely thanks to the Teamsters who account for about 10 percent of the vote. If Hoffa and the old guard, many of whom supported Republicans, take back the Teamsters, the balance of power within the whole labor federation could shift. The AFL-CIO could be further damaged if it is proved, as court records suggest, that the AFL-CIO's No. 2 man, Richard Trumka, approved an under-the-table transfer of $150,000 from the Teamsters, via the AFL-CIO, to Citizen Action. Trumka claims he thought he was facilitating a legitimate contribution.

The scandal obviously threatens Citizen Action, one of the more dynamic outfits on the left. In 1995 and 1996, it mounted an energetic assault against the GOP on the issues of Medicare, Medicaid and environmental regulations. This included an extensive get-out-the-vote project targeting voters who would be more likely to vote Democratic. It is not clear that Citizen Action's leaders were knowing participants in the contributions swaps with the Teamsters. It's possible that just one of its fund-raiser orchestrated the deal. Presently, Citizen's Action is cooperating with the ongoing investigation. Clearly, it has a lot of explaining to do.

There are not many effective organizations remaining on the left. If Citizen Action goes down, Republicans will have one more reason to cheer their 1998 prospects. It may also put a scare into the small group of rich progressives who fund Citizen Action and similar activist organizations on the left. They might decide their money would be better spent supporting some save-the-whale types rather than activities such as get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Those liberal consultants who went to illegal extremes in trying to save the progressive-friendly leadership of Ron Carey have done great damage to their own cause.

By David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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Campaign Finance Newt Gingrich Republican Party The Labor Movement Unemployment