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The Walnut Overture

The Teamsters were cooling on Clinton, so a cash-hungry White House went to work

By Michael Weisskopf/TIME

Time cover

WASHINGTON (TIME, Oct. 27) -- No challenge is more inviting to Bill Clinton than a voting bloc on the verge of slipping away. Take the Teamsters: Clinton had broken the union's long-standing alliance with Republicans, but by early 1995 its enthusiasm had "died down," an Administration memo says. So Clinton's team went to work. Harold Ickes, then the deputy chief of staff, and Mickey Kantor, the U.S. Trade Representative, took pains to help Teamster president Ron Carey deal with a bitter California strike, according to interviews and documents obtained by TIME. While the White House overture failed to win concessions for the Teamsters, it apparently helped the White House score points with the union. The Teamsters, its enthusiasm revived, gave him and other Democrats about $3 million in that election cycle.

Those contributions have come under Justice Department scrutiny since Carey loyalists admitted in guilty pleas last month that among schemes to funnel money into Carey's re-election campaign in 1996, they tried to pull off a donation swap with Democrats--a swap that party officials entertained briefly, then apparently rejected. The new documents do not implicate the White House in the scotched deal, but they offer a rare glimpse into West Wing wooing of the Teamsters to guarantee its help in Clinton's re-election campaign. "Carey is not a schmoozer," states the 1995 memo to Ickes. "He wants results on issues he cares about."

The strike, at Diamond Walnut Growers in Stockton, Calif., was just such an issue. After 700 union members walked out in 1991, the firm hired replacement workers to process and package its 100,000 tons of nuts a year. The Teamsters demanded the jobs back, and the company refused, a standoff that persists today. But in 1995 the strike was seen by presidential aides as a chance, the memo said, to "rekindle" the Teamster bosses' affection for Clinton. Identifying the strike as one of Carey's "biggest problems," the memo urged Ickes to "assist in any way possible."

And assist he did. Teamster officials, with a fine understanding of political pressure points, asked Ickes to put Kantor on the case. Who better to jawbone the management of Diamond Walnut than the man charged with opening foreign markets for American nuts? "I remember calling Mickey and saying, 'This is something bothering the Teamsters,'" Ickes told TIME. Said a White House veteran familiar with the issue: "Implicit in such messages is, Bring pressure to bear."

Once the White House got interested, the Teamsters refused to let go. Union political director Bill Hamilton described the high-level effort in a March 27 memo, noting Ickes informed him that Kantor "agreed to use his discretionary authority to try to convince the CEO of that company that they should settle the dispute," said the memo, first revealed by the Detroit News. A company spokesman confirmed that Kantor called former CEO Bill Cuff.

In an interview last week, Kantor said he called the company, but out of a long-standing interest in farm workers. He said he discussed the company's views of the strike with a top official and asked "what were the prospects" of settlement, but did not offer a solution. Diamond Walnut does a third of its business overseas, a share Kantor could have helped boost as Trade Rep. Still, he says the contacts were "appropriate." A Senate committee is investigating whether he is right.

--By Michael Weisskopf/Washington





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