Players: Why the Teamsters Dislike New DNC Deputy Chair

Posted September 23, 2003 at 5:41pm

We apologize that we can’t provide you with a score card for this one. But hold tight and read closely.

When Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe announced last week that Susan Turnbull would become one of the DNC’s three new deputy chairmen, it came as an unwelcome surprise to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. After all, the Teamsters and Turnbull have never been fond of each other.

“I wouldn’t consider our relationship as warm and fuzzy,” says Chuck Harple, the union’s political director.

Turnbull would not disagree.

In 2001, when Turnbull was seeking to become DNC secretary, Teamster brass sent an explosive mailing to all 400-plus voting members of the committee urging them to reject her. The mailing said she wasn’t trustworthy. The mailing said she wasn’t a good Democrat. The mailing said she wasn’t sympathetic to unions. The mailing unearthed an ethics charge that had been lodged against Turnbull years earlier by a civic gadfly when she was serving on a zoning appeals board in her suburban county.

Turnbull — whose father was a Teamster when he worked as a cab driver in Cleveland — lost by a handful of votes to the incumbent, Kathleen Vick. Several of her supporters blamed the Teamsters.

What’s the source of the animus between the powerful union and a well- regarded if obscure veteran member of the DNC from Maryland? Apparently, a special election for the Montgomery County (Md.) Council — and, indirectly, the long history of internal strife within the Teamsters union.

In March 2000, two Democrats were competing in a primary to fill a vacancy on the County Council. One, Patricia Baptiste, is the wife of Robert Baptiste, the formidable former general counsel to the Teamsters who still does contract work for several Teamsters locals and whose law partner is the union’s general counsel today. The other, Roger Berliner, was endorsed by most of the public employee unions in Montgomery County. Turnbull — who in her role as national committeewoman generally stays neutral in Free State primaries — endorsed Berliner, an old friend.

Long after the election, Pat Baptiste

said she could never figure out why those unions were so hostile to her. But she did recall having a heated conversation with the political director of one over the strife within the Teamsters. This operative was sympathetic to the union’s reform wing, while Baptiste’s husband was an ally of the faction headed by the current Teamsters president, James Hoffa.

When Baptiste defeated Berliner in the primary (aided by out-of-state Teamsters who did get-out-the-vote work for her campaign), Turnbull fell in line and endorsed Baptiste in the April 2000 general election. But several Democrats who did not like Baptiste personally, including the unions that had backed Berliner, sat on their hands, and Baptiste was upset in the general election by a Republican. A year later, as Turnbull was launching her own campaign, the Teamsters sharpened their knives.

But the plot thickens: By the time Turnbull was running for DNC secretary, the young man who had been Baptiste’s campaign manager, Brian Kildee, was working in the political shop at the union’s “Marble Palace” headquarters on Capitol Hill.

Despite her loss in the secretary’s race, Turnbull remains close to McAuliffe and heads the DNC’s Women’s Leadership Forum. Last week came her reward when she was named one of the DNC’s three new deputy chairmen, as well as the committee’s liaison to women’s groups.

Harple says that while he’s sorry he wasn’t given a heads-up by the DNC about Turnbull’s promotion, he isn’t going to let it affect his ability to work with national Democrats.

“We wouldn’t disregard a relationship with the DNC because of one person,” he says. “We’d just disregard [Turnbull].”

Besides, the Teamsters are supporting another offspring of a Teamster, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), for president in 2004. Harple, who praises McAuliffe as “accessible,” says the union is looking forward to working with the DNC when Gephardt becomes the nominee.

Two other semi-related nuggets: In 2002, Brian Kildee’s mother, Dolly Kildee, a leader of the Service Employees International Union chapter in Montgomery County, Md., ran for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates, and held her first fundraiser at the Marble Palace with Pat Baptiste by her side. But other than the SEIU, the Montgomery County public employee unions, which generally endorse in lockstep in state and local elections in Maryland, could not find it in their hearts to back Dolly Kildee, and she lost.

Meanwhile, the civic gadfly who filed the ethics charges against Turnbull several years back, Jorge Ribas, found himself on the front page of The Washington Post earlier this month. Ribas, the head of a Hispanic Republican group in Maryland, had the temerity to criticize Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) for his administration’s hiring practices. Ehrlich and other GOP leaders are trying to fire or neutralize Ribas.

Whether the misfortunes of Ribas and Kildee are providing Susan Turnbull any satisfaction, she isn’t saying. Turnbull says the response to her promotion has been “overwhelming.” And she now calls her 2001 row with the Teamsters “a blip on the horizon.”