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Teamsters ballot could bear famous name: Hoffa

Published Jun. 4, 1995|Updated Oct. 4, 2005

"I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees!" Jimmy P. Hoffa says to applause from Teamsters gathered in a Sheraton hotel ballroom.

Invoking old labor slogans is part of a blitz aimed at spreading the word that he is chasing the legacy of his father, the union boss who led the Teamsters, was jailed for jury tampering and fraud and then vanished in 1975.

Hoffa, 54, a jacket-and-tie labor lawyer, wants to oust Ron Carey in the union's 1996 presidential race. He plans to declare his candidacy July 30, the 20th anniversary of his dad's disappearance.

Appropriating imagery from the children's movie The Lion King, Hoffa sees himself as Simba, the lion prince who flees his kingdom when his father is killed and then returns to rule. "That's it. That's it," Hoffa said after seeing the film.

At the Hunts Point Terminal, a wholesale produce market in the Bronx, Hoffa stands on a forklift in a warehouse filled with boxes of peppers, bananas and oranges. "Hoffa lives! Hoffa's here!" he shouts to a crowd of night-shift workers.

"Who is he?" produce handler Nick DiGiorno asks as Hoffa greets workers along a loading dock, the first of many stops on the East Coast. Several men snicker as a co-worker walks zombie-like and moans: "Heeeeee's back."

Despite the dark humor, Hoffa inspires deep allegiance from some Teamsters, who are frustrated by a loss of strike benefits and dwindling membership.

Says Boston driver Tim Dunn, sporting a Hoffa jacket, golf shirt and baseball cap: "He's going to turn the Teamsters around." Dunn spends his free time handing out homemade Hoffa fliers for drivers at such places as Bedford, N.H., tollbooths.

Hoffa, with the beefy build of a former football player, would be a dead ringer for his dad if he buzzed his hairdo into a 1950s flattop. He labels a campaign video "Jimmy Hoffa Jr." even though his middle name (Phillip) isn't the same as his father's (Riddle).

He lives in a comfortable four-bedroom house, dappled with brass candlesticks and hunting prints, in a Troy, Mich., neighborhood popular with Kmart executives. His wife, Virginia, is an aerobics teacher who subscribes to Cat Fancy magazine.

Hoffa runs his campaign from a desk in his den. On a shelf is Robert Kennedy's The Enemy Within, which the former attorney general and Hoffa prosecutor sent to the elder Hoffa with the sardonic message: "To Jimmy, I'm sending you this book so you won't have to use union funds to buy one. Bobby."

Though he cites his almost 25 years as an outside counsel for the Teamsters union, Hoffa hasn't really handled any prominent cases as a labor lawyer.

After graduating from the University of Michigan's law school in 1967, he was hired to do outside legal work for Michigan Teamsters locals and built a private practice as a result of that work.

Detroit-area lawyers say Hoffa's cases have mostly been run-of-the-mill, such as workers' compensation claims and grievances.

Hoffa, who says he has raised $50,000 so far for the race, wanted to run for president in the last election in 1991 but wasn't allowed to because he hadn't held a union job for the required two years. He had worked as a truck driver during school summers, and though he has maintained his union membership, he has never held an elected post.

To qualify for this election, he became an administrative assistant in 1990 to Detroit union boss Larry Brennan, whose father was indicted _ and later acquitted _ with the elder Hoffa on charges of illegally using surveillance devices.

The younger Hoffa _ derisively called "Junior" by political opponents _ and his friends stand on one side of a dividing line, with Carey, 60, and the government on the other.

Under a 1989 agreement with the Justice Department to end the union's "devil's pact" with organized crime, a federal panel polices the union in a cleanup that helped vault Carey to power. Hoffa calls retired U.S. Judge Frederick Lacey, who runs the panel, "Freddie the Fixer" for clearing Carey of corruption charges.

The Hoffa campaign troops circulate anti-Carey documents, and Detroit lawyer George Geller, an outside counsel for a Teamsters local, wrote the polemics alleging Carey ties to organized crime.

Carey forces have their own ammunition. From a Detroit office located next door to a topless bar, Teamster Ken Paff mails fliers with "Hoffa Corruption" messages and charges of Hoffa ties to the mob.

The flier also says that Hoffa aide Rich Leebove and Geller belonged to the political party run by conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche; Leebove and Geller quit the party in 1981.

And Hoffa opponents tap into worry provoked by the famous name. When the girlfriend of one Teamsters official told her mother that she had just met Jimmy Hoffa, she got this response: "Oh, my God. Be careful." After all, Hoffa's father was a convicted felon with ties to the Mafia.

His political enemies also raise questions about some of the people Hoffa has rubbed shoulders with.

They complain that he is friends with Mike Bane, a Hoffa campaigner and Michigan Teamsters leader who once stomped on a political rival and was jailed for embezzling union funds. During the Sheraton weekend, Hoffa attended a $100-a-person legal-defense fund-raiser for Gene Giacumbo, a New Jersey union official charged by the federal oversight panel with corruption. And the Hunts Point produce market where he campaigns is being investigated for organized-crime activity, according to law enforcement officials.

Hoffa dismisses all this as either ancient history or "a smear campaign."

Regarding all the speculation about what happened to his father's body, Hoffa bets that the remains ended up in a Midwest slaughterhouse, where animal carcasses are shredded.

In the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox, a restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Hoffa points to where his dad's dark-green 1974 Pontiac was found after he vanished. He says: "This should be on the tour of the stars."

It isn't. Looming over the strip-mall parking lot is a Kroger grocery store, one of the first businesses his father fought to unionize.

Still, despite his name, appearance and his effort to reclaim the kingdom, Hoffa isn't his dad. At a recent Teamsters rally, he wore a sticker reading: "Hello, my name is Jimmy P. Hoffa."