Obama-Teamsters deal to end federal oversight?

The Wall Street Journal reports that Barack Obama had to do some hard work in winning the endorsement from the Teamsters. Obama told the union that he favored an end to federal oversight intended to keep Mafia corruption out of the organization. Until now, presidential candidates have avoided any such politicking on this point, preferring to keep it in the DoJ — and Obama has already begun backpedaling:

Sen. Barack Obama won the endorsement of the Teamsters earlier this year after privately telling the union he supported ending the strict federal oversight imposed to root out corruption, according to officials from the union and the Obama campaign.

It’s an unusual stance for a presidential candidate. Policy makers have largely treated monitoring of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as a legal matter left to the Justice Department since an independent review board was set up in 1992 to eliminate mob influence in the union.

Sen. Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, has declined to take a stance on Teamsters oversight. During his eight years in office, President Bill Clinton took no action to end the special board. Democratic presidential nominees in 2000 and 2004 — Al Gore and John Kerry — didn’t address the issue, according to Teamsters officials.

Neither Sen. Obama nor Teamsters President James P. Hoffa has spoken publicly about easing up federal oversight, a top priority for Mr. Hoffa since he became union president in 1999. On the campaign trail, Mr. Hoffa stresses Sen. Obama’s criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement as the big factor in winning the 1.4-million member union’s support.

But John Coli, vice president for the Teamsters central region, who brokered the Teamsters endorsement, said Sen. Obama was “pretty definitive that the time had come to start the beginning of the end” of the three-member independent review board that investigates suspect activity in the union. Mr. Coli said that Sen. Obama conveyed that view in a series of phone conversations and meetings with Teamsters officials last year.

Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed the candidate’s position in a statement to The Wall Street Journal, saying that Sen. Obama believes that the board “has run its course,” because “organized crime influence in the union has drastically declined.” Mr. Vietor said Sen. Obama took that position last year.

The Teamsters have a long association with the Mafia and organized crime corruption. James Hoffa Sr. allowed the Mob to use its pension fund as a piggy bank to finance, among other things, massive construction in Las Vegas in the 1950s. The disappearance of Hoffa has always been considered linked to those connections, and the influence of organized crime continued until the federal government took oversight responsibilities for the union’s management activities.

This answer stands in stark contrast to Obama’s response on the DC gun ban. When asked whether the city’s outright ban on handguns was constitutional, the constitutional lawyer refused to take a position, claiming he had not read the briefs. Has he done any research on the Teamsters and the status of the oversight effort? Or does he have a different threshold when it comes to pandering to union bosses rather than gun owners?

This morning, Obama has already started his retreat. This exchange on Good Morning America shows that Obama understands the damage he did:

SAWYER: Want to turn to the news of the day. Front page of “The Wall Street Journal” today, it says before you won the endorsement of the Teamsters, you indicated to them you would support ending strict federal oversight of the union, which was imposed back in the early ’90s to deal with corruption. Was that commitment made to them?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, I wouldn’t make any blanket commitments. what I’ve said is that we should take a look at what’s been happening over the Teamsters and at all unions to make sure that, in fact, you know, organized labor is able to represent its membership and engage in collective bargaining in accordance to what we’ve always believed.

SAWYER: But if they heard you to be saying that you did support, you did support lifting this strict federal oversight, are they wrong?

SEN. OBAMA: No, what I’ve said is that I would examine what is going on in terms of the federal oversight that’s been taking place, but it’s been in place for many years, the union has done a terrific job cleaning house, and the question is whether they’re going to be able to get treated just like every other union, whether that time has come and that’s something that I’ll absolutely examine when I’m president of the United States.

In other words, the Teamsters heard him correctly, and Obama wants to roll back the oversight. He knows he can’t say it outright, but note that he doesn’t dispute the Teamsters’ version of the conversation. In fact he confirms that he made at least some commitment to change the status of their receivership. That puts him into fairly radical territory — and also reveals him as a panderer of the worst sort.