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LOCAL TEAMSTERS JOIN HOFFA BANDWAGON

It's a common mistake. Even the sign in the hotel hosting James P. Hoffa's fund-raising event got it wrong:

"Welcome Jimmy Hoffa Jr.!" said the placard posted in a hallway.

The son of the legendary Teamsters chief, now running for Jimmy Hoffa's old job, doesn't go by "Jr." But neither does he disavow his father's controversial legacy.

"When my father was president of this union, we were the most powerful union in the free world," he said Sunday during a campaign stop in Buffalo.

Hoffa, a 57-year-old Detroit attorney favored to win leadership of the 1.4 million-member Teamsters, promised that he will heal a union at war with itself and weakened by almost a decade of federal oversight. His message appealed to Teamsters' resentment of federal control and their frustration at an empty strike fund.

If he wins his bid for president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, it "will send a message to employers and to the Justice Department that this union is back, this union is united, and we will not be trifled with," he said.

Demonstrating his confidence, Hoffa is lobbying the Teamsters governing board to approve funds for a federally supervised election. The union's leaders are set to consider the election funding issue today.

The heads of Western New York Teamsters units representing about 14,000 members turned out at a $100-a-person brunch to support Hoffa, some having switched their allegiance from his opponents' camp. Wearing yellow "Hoffa Now" buttons, they predicted the rank-and-file will overwhelmingly pick the candidate as their next leader in an election planned for October.

But his opponents charge Hoffa of having the same tolerance of union ties to organized crime that branded his father, making him a poor choice to end the Teamsters federal cleanup.

"A Hoffa Jr. election victory would extend government oversight of the union indefinitely," according to an opponent's campaign material.

Former president Ron Carey, who narrowly defeated Hoffa in 1996, was disqualified from running for re-election in November because $735,000 was funneled into his campaign from the union's treasury. Hoffa was fined for violating election rules, but was cleared to participate in the rerun election.

"We're the reformers," Hoffa told regional leaders Sunday at the Radisson Hotel and Suites in Buffalo. "The final irony is the great reformer, Ron Carey, turns out to be just another charlatan."

Carey's scandal and ouster from the union leaves the "two Toms" -- Hoffa opponents Tom Leedham and Tom Sever -- vulnerable to charges they benefited from the Carey campaign's chicanery. They also appear to be splitting the remaining base of Carey's battered reform caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

"I think the only one who can put this whole union together again is Jimmy Hoffa," said Brian Masterson, president of Teamsters Local 375 in Buffalo. A supporter of Carey in 1996, Masterson expressed dissatisfaction with the administration's finances, which left the union's treasury empty.

"They spent more than (ex-Teamsters president) Jackie Presser, and that's saying something," Masterson said.

The empty strike fund and internal union squabbling undermine local leaders' stance with employers, officials said.

The backing of Western New York Teamsters officials reflects a swell of support for Hoffa in important strongholds. Several of New York's largest units are turning away from Carey's political heirs.

Hoffa vowed he would end what he called the union's pattern of retaliation against political opponents. The Carey administration carried out vendettas against local leaders, starving them of support for failing to fall in line, he charged.

Thomas W. Dziedzic, president of the Teamsters Joint Council 46 and Local 264 in Buffalo, said he stayed neutral in 1996 for fear that Carey would cut off support for a regional campaign to save grocery jobs.

Teamster members who heard Hoffa speak during a rally outside a striking truck company in Cheektowaga said they favor a stronger Teamsters that will secure their jobs and pensions.

"We just need a change -- the membership's going down . . . I think Hoffa will make people want to join the Teamsters again," said Feliks Zarczynsky, a truck driver from Chautauqua County.

Retiree Don Butterworth voiced misgivings about a Hoffa presidency.

"I hope he don't ruin it," the Tonawanda man said, claiming neutrality in the upcoming election. "I just retired and I got a very good pension."

Butterworth's concern was rooted in the looting of the union's Central States Pension Fund during the elder Hoffa's presidency.

But Tim Papay, a Buffalo driver for Yellow Freight, said "you can't blame him (James P. Hoffa) for his father."

Leedham spokesman Steve Trossman said that James P. Hoffa's own connections, apart from his father's reputation, should take him out of the running.

The most recent example he cited was in 1991, when Hoffa worked as a lawyer for Teamsters Local 707 on Long Island. Hoffa, then based in Detroit, went out of his way to take the job, and worked to reinstate officers banished for their ties to a reputed captain in the Colombo crime family, Needham's campaign charges.

Hoffa dismissed a question about his work for the Local 707. He called it a "non-issue," and repeated that it was Carey's campaign that was proved corrupt, tainting his opponents.

"They have absolutely no credibility," he said.

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