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Senators: Look to the Teamsters

The Senate killed campaign finance reform last week. Chairman Fred Thompson has the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee once again looking for fund-raising misdeeds. Now the committee is looking into the relationship between the Teamsters and the Democr

Published: October 13, 1997

Los Angeles Times
October 13, 1997

Senators: Look to the Teamsters
By Kenneth N. Weine

The Senate killed campaign finance reform last week. Chairman Fred Thompson has the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee once again looking for fund-raising misdeeds. Now the committee is looking into the relationship between the Teamsters and the Democrats. But there is more than mischief to learn from the Teamsters. The Senate could find a great way to reform campaign financing by examining the handling of the recent Teamster elections.

That’s right. Our federal officeholders can find a way to improve democracy by emulating the Teamsters.

Under federal supervision since 1989 after decades of graft, the Teamsters last December were required to have their 1.4 million members elect their president. They had done this once before. Five years earlier, for the first time ever, Teamster members directly elected their president—and they chose Ron Carey, a maverick who promised real and symbolic reform. Carey faced a tough re-election bid in December 1996. Unfortunately his lieutenants (and Carey himself, his foes allege) violated several laws that regulate the raising of funds for union elections.

Carey won—and here is where the Senate should take notice—but his victory was voided because of fund-raising improprieties. The democratic will of Teamsters members was too precious, a federal judge ruled, to retain an officeholder who might not have won fairly. Serious measures were taken to ensure a truly democratic process. A new election will be held. Carey might not be allowed to run. Steep fines have been imposed. And Carey’s lieutenants face federal charges, and suffered potentially terminal wounds to their professional and personal reputations. (One Carey loyalist told the federal judge that his reputation was “irreparably damaged” and his guilty pleas would “significantly diminish, if not end, [his] ability to work for the causes [he] believe[s] in.")

This is not how the law treats federal candidates and political parties that are found to have violated campaign finance rules. Fines are rarely imposed, and only after years of litigation. (The 1992 Clinton campaign was still paying fines in 1997.) Political professionals routinely game the system. (Senate committee testimony revealed that former G.O.P. chair Haley Barbour had partisan contributions sent to a tax-exempt organization while he ran the Republican Party, and Clinton operatives used the Democratic Party to funnel money to the President’s reelection efforts.) Officeholders patronizingly feign surprise when it is revealed that donors expect, and most often receive, access and influence when they contribute. (In their hearings, members of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, each of whom raised millions for their own campaigns, literally gasped when oil-financier Roger Tamraz explained how he tried to further his business interests by contributing to the Democratic Party.)

Imagine if we protected campaigns for federal office as fervently as we have protected Teamster elections. Fund-raising monkey business would financially cripple candidates and political parties. Law-breakers would simply be out of work. And most dramatically, if the judicary concluded that illegal campaign funds had affected an election’s outcome, a new election would be ordered.

Unions have diversified their ranks in the 1990s, and the Teamsters represent not only truck-drivers but nurses, secretaries, custodians, and many others. Although the process is not always pretty, the Teamsters are operating like a real representative democracy. The Senate should take notice.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kenneth N. Weine is a staff attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law.