Teamsters Builds New Group to Back Moderate Candidates

Teamsters (searchofficials are building a new nonprofit political group to back moderate causes and candidates, saying they don't want to send cash to the  AFL-CIO in blind support of liberal Democrats.

The group doesn't yet have a name and details are still being finalized, said Mike Mathis, the Teamsters' political director.

The 1.3-million member union, led by James P. Hoffa (search), is deft at playing both sides of the political aisle and is one of the few that has the ear of the White House.

Its formation of the political group also illustrates the split in the labor movement between the more conservative industrial, trades and laborers unions and the more liberal AFL-CIO (search) and unions representing services, professional and government workers.

The divide is particularly stark when it comes to the decision over the Democratic presidential nominee to challenge President Bush next year.

"Frankly, we're tired of supporting people for the Democratic nomination that we then have to apologize for," Mathis said.

While still months away from endorsements, the trades unions have been enthusiastic about Democratic Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, a longtime union ally who opposes free trade policies. He is speaking at the Teamsters' conference Monday in Las Vegas.

The services unions, however, have tended to focus on Gephardt's rivals, Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.

In the 2002 election cycle, organized labor spent $96.5 million to elect mostly Democrats. Just 7 percent of the money went to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (search).

But a new campaign finance law that banned unlimited contributions from unions and corporations forced labor leaders to seek another political outlet.

What emerged was a new, nonprofit group called Partnership for America's Families (search) that is being run by the AFL-CIO's former political director, Steve Rosenthal, to pool soft money and spend it on mobilizing all Democratic voters.

Those plans aren't expected to change with Friday's ruling by a federal court that struck down most of the soft-money ban.

Teamsters officials decided they liked the concept of a tax-exempt political organization, but they wanted to control how their money would be spent, Mathis said. The Teamsters spent $2.5 million in the 2002 elections, with 16 percent going to Republicans.

"With our bipartisan outreach, we've built ties with corporate interests and coalition groups who are looking for something that's not extreme left or extreme right," he said. "There's not really a group out there that fills that void."

Plans are continuing, but the court's ruling could make it more difficult to solicit money and partners. Some donors who were looking for an outlet now may decide they can again write their checks to the political parties, Mathis said.