In the early days of James P. Hoffa's campaign for president of the Teamsters union, he barely mentioned his main opponent, reformer Tom Leedham. With Hoffa's name recognition and strong showing in the 1996 race, he saw the election as a cakewalk. It may not be.
The Leedham slate reports a favorable reception wherever members campaign. At a meeting in Southfield last month, Leedham told backers that he'd learned not to be concerned when he arrived at workplaces to find them plastered with Hoffa stickers. The sticker glut merely reflected Hoffa's big campaign budget and his backing among union officials, Leedham said. "And stickers aren't eligible to vote," he added.
Hoffa's support didn't help Richard Nelson, director of the union's freight division, formerly a supporter of onetime union president Ron Carey. Nelson switched to Hoffa, and when Nelson ran for re- election as president of his Oklahoma local union, Hoffa wrote a letter of support. His local voted him out by a 2-1 ratio.
"Just because a local official is supporting Hoffa, that's no indication at all of where his members are at," said Leedham spokesperson Steve Trossman.
An assessment of the candidates' relative strengths may be contained in a poll that Hoffa apparently conducted in September but has refused to release. Hoffa campaign officials denied the existence of such a poll to reporters Ken Crowe of Newsday and Kevin Galvin of the Associated Press. Questioned later by the Metro Times, a Hoffa spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny that a poll was taken. But when Hoffa filed his election expenses report with the government, the poll was listed.
Meanwhile, Hoffa has refused to debate Leedham. The federal monitor overseeing the election asked the candidates to debate and offered to publicize the match widely.
Hoffa's campaign manager said Hoffa didn't want to "catapult Mr. Hoffa's opponents into a name recognition and stature which they, unlike Hoffa, haven't earned."
Hoffa, critics point out, is a lawyer who has never been elected to any Teamster office, whose name recognition comes from his father, former Teamster President James R. Hoffa.
"If he's afraid to take me on in a debate, I wonder where he's going to get the guts to take on UPS or the giant freight companies," said Leedham.
Ballots are in the mail to union members and are to be counted December 3.