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Teamsters Likely to Back Gephardt

The union, which today is expected to announce its preferred Democratic candidate for 2004, would be the 10th to support the Missourian.

August 01, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Teamsters union is expected to endorse the presidential candidacy of Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, sources said Thursday, support that would give a well-timed boost to his bid for the Democratic nomination.

The executive board of the Teamsters, which, with 1.3 million members, is one of the nation's largest unions, planned to confirm its choice in a telephone conference call today, according to the sources.

Bret Caldwell, a Teamsters spokesman, declined to comment on the endorsement reports. But the praise he offered for Gephardt left little doubt about how the Teamster leaders were leaning.

"Dick Gephardt has been right on issues important to working families practically 100% of the time since he became a member of Congress," Caldwell said. "He is right on our issues more than any of his competitors [in the Democratic contest]. The right thing to do is support those who supported you. We like him. He's been a friend of ours since day one."

The backing of the Teamsters would help Gephardt rebound from a recent political setback. He fell about $1 million short of his fund-raising goal for the year's second quarter, raising doubts about his candidacy's viability.

The Teamsters endorsement also could provide Gephardt crucial support in key states in the nominating process where labor leaders are influential. These include Iowa, where caucuses on Jan. 19 will formally kick off the Democratic campaign, and Michigan.

Gephardt has consistently backed labor causes since he won his House seat in 1976. He has been a vocal critic of international trade agreements proposed by Democratic and Republican presidents, citing concerns that they would cost American jobs.

Based on that track record, Gephardt has been counting on extensive labor support to fuel his presidential run.

The Teamsters endorsement would cap a good week for him on that front.

On Tuesday, he won the backing of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents the entertainment industry's blue-collar work force.

On Thursday, he picked up endorsements from two other unions -- the Seafarers International Union of North America and the American Maritime Officers.

The nine unions that have endorsed Gephardt so far count a total membership of 1.4 million.

Speaking about the maritime union endorsements, Gephardt said: "What unions give you is both resources and people -- ground troops" to help turn out voters.

Erik Smith, a Gephardt spokesman, said the candidate was hopeful of capturing the Teamsters endorsement.

"They've got proven organizational ability," Smith said. "In the race for the Democratic nomination, you've got to build a strong grass-roots organization. And the Teamsters certainly have the numbers and the skills to do that."

Gephardt also has a family connection to the Teamsters: His father was a milk truck driver and a member of the union.

President Bush sought to woo the Teamsters early in his term, and won support from the union for some administration policies. For instance, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa strongly backed Bush's drive to expand oil drilling on public lands. But Hoffa has grown critical of the administration for what he views as its anti-labor policies.

Unlike most unions, Teamster leaders have endorsed Republican presidential candidates -- Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988.

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