ANAHEIM — His tattooed arms crossed, Charles Poper listened intently as James P. Hoffa, son of the late Teamsters leader, stood in a blue truck pumping his fists in the air and promising to invigorate the nation's largest private-sector union.
"I wonder if this is the man who can change things around," said Poper, 49, an Orange County bus driver disenchanted with his local union and the lot of the working man. "At this point, I haven't decided."
Members like Poper--who cares about his union and is certain to vote, but remains uncommitted--figure to make the difference in the election this fall for president of the storied, controversial union.
And few places will be as important to the two contenders, Hoffa and incumbent Ronald R. Carey, as Southern California. The region is home to about 140,000 Teamsters, or 10% of the union's total membership, and Orange County looms as a major battleground.
A clearer picture of the race will emerge in about two weeks at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters convention in Philadelphia, where delegates will nominate candidates and vote on finance issues and institutional reforms that have been at the heart of the Carey and Hoffa campaigns.
Analysts say the West Coast may prove to be the swing vote, at the convention and in the November mail-ballot election for president. Carey, 60, hails from New York and seems to have a lock on the East, while Hoffa, a 55-year-old native of Detroit, has strong support in the central region.
But in Southern California, long the Teamsters' West Coast power base, the leadership is split. And so apparently is the membership.
"There are many sitting on the fence," said Raul Lopez, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 396 in Covina. Lopez is supporting Carey, even though his 9,000-member local is affiliated with Joint Council 42, an umbrella group of 19 locals that is firmly behind Hoffa.
Both Hoffa and Carey see the Southland as crucial to their success. "It's very important to us," Hoffa said in an interview last weekend in Anaheim, where nearly 100 people turned out for a rally. "We've got to touch the members."
Carey, who took office in 1992, was also moving through freight barns and warehouses in the Southland over the weekend, shaking hands with workers and raising donations. Carey's camp said a recent independent poll of members commissioned by his campaign showed that nationally, he has a 19-point lead over Hoffa.
Hoffa dismisses those poll results, and he says the convention will provide a gauge of where he and Carey stand.
But Steve Wattenmaker, a spokesman for Carey's campaign, said that's not necessarily true. At a similar convention in 1991, he said, Carey garnered just 15% of the delegates but then went on to win the mail ballot election by a commanding margin over runner-up R.V. Durham of North Carolina.
"It's one thing to elect delegates, another thing to get a secret ballot at your home," Wattenmaker said.
Carey, a former United Parcel Service truck driver in New York, won a five-year term on a grass-roots campaign to clean up the corruption-marred union. In fact, his path was paved in 1989 when Teamsters leaders settled a federal racketeering lawsuit by agreeing to allow the rank and file to elect delegates to the convention and vote directly for national leaders.
Hoffa, a stocky man who has his father's piercing eyes, for years worked as a union lawyer in Detroit. In 1993 he quit his law practice, and last summer announced his candidacy during a taping of the "Larry King Live" show in Los Angeles. Hoffa has won instant recognition because of his name, which represents a legacy of both Teamster strength and corruption.
Throughout his campaign, Hoffa has attacked Carey for the union's declining membership and financial woes, including a strike fund that went broke in 1991 because the weekly benefit for strikers increased from $55 to $200. Carey says he has actually staunched the long decline in membership--which peaked at 2 million in the 1970s--thanks to organizing victories at freight companies and public agencies, such as the Los Angeles schools.
Carey also says he inherited the union's financial problems and that he has returned millions of dollars to local unions by eliminating unnecessary layers of bureaucracy.
At the upcoming weeklong convention, the 1,700 delegates are likely to take up matters relating to union leaders' powers and salaries, the right of members to directly elect leaders through secret ballots, and a proposal to change part of the union's name, a particularly divisive issue.
Carey, for example, supports the notion that "Brotherhood" be dropped from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to reflect the presence of women in the union. But Hoffa and his backers argue that the word is as much a part of the union's tradition as the horses on the Teamsters' emblem, which depict an earlier era when members rode horses to haul goods.