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Hoffmann once rocked the boat in Milwaukee
Posted: Aug. 23, 2004
Yeah, he's that Roy Hoffmann.
If you're paying any attention to the news these days, you probably know Hoffmann is the chairman of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth - the group running controversial ads in Wisconsin and two other states attacking the Vietnam War record of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
But unless you're a political junkie, you may not recall that Hoffmann is the same guy who spent eight years in Milwaukee as the port director before being unceremoniously dumped in 1986.
"There was just a lot of friction with the staff," said former Ald. Wayne Frank, who was given the task of letting the retired rear admiral know that surrender was his only option. "His military bearing was not left behind when he assumed the role of the port.
"He was given the choice of leaving with grace or he would be fired."
Shortly afterward, Hoffmann relinquished his $65,000-per-year job, saying he had no legal grounds to challenge his removal. The Harbor Commission quickly and unanimously accepted his resignation.
News clips from the time are somewhat murky about why Hoffmann was forced to walk the plank. The stories mention morale and other problems at the city-owned port, but no specifics were provided.
"I have never said one thing publicly about the reasons I sought Roy Hoffmann's resignation. I never will," then-commission Chairman Dan Steininger said in 1986. Keeping in line with that declaration, Steininger, top honcho at Catholic Knights, did not return our calls Monday.
Hoffmann's anti-Kerry group did not respond to our request for an interview. At the time of his ouster, the admiral said, "The biggest disappointment in my life is not being able to turn around this port."
Some of those involved in Hoffmann's hiring and firing were, to put it mildly, shocked to see the blunt-talking veteran surface as a key figure in the presidential sweepstakes.
"When I saw Hoffmann on that swift boat commercial, I could not believe it," said Milwaukee business exec / politician Richard Weening, who headed the Harbor Commission in 1978 when Hoffmann was hired.
"I was blown away to see him."
Hoffmann is the founder of the vets' group that has been relentlessly hammering Kerry by accusing him of lying about his Vietnam War record and betraying fellow veterans by later opposing the conflict. In the group's first commercial, Hoffmann is the eighth of 15 veterans to appear on camera, saying, "John Kerry has not been honest."
During the war, then-Capt. Hoffmann was the commanding officer of a task force that included Kerry, who was a Navy lieutenant junior grade. After one mission for which Kerry received a Silver Star - but is now under scrutiny because of the swift-boat ads - Hoffmann sent Kerry and other officers a congratulatory note praising their initiative and aggressive tactics, according to a story in the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. The story was written by a Tribune editor who was also on the mission.
Hoffmann made rear admiral in 1973 and was named commander of the Charleston (S.C.) Naval Base three years later, the post he left to come to Milwaukee.
He was tapped by the Harbor Commission after a yearlong search. Weening said commissioners were impressed with Hoffmann's extensive military background and his leadership qualities.
"I always thought he was an honorable guy," Weening said Monday. "He wasn't particularly strong on the sales side."
Bill Drew, a one-time City Hall powerhouse, remembers Hoffmann kept his military demeanor when dealing with the Common Council - a group that some view as a bunch of self-proclaimed little generals.
"He always had a presentation that was backed with charts and numbers. He was very precise, very military," recalled Drew, a former council president. "I don't think he was easy to push around. He was no cream puff."
But in the end, Hoffmann found out that there is one rule that is universal in military or civilian life: If you go at it with your superiors, you almost always lose.
"He got crosswise with his bosses," Weening said.
Frank said there wasn't one specific incident that led to Hoffmann's Milwaukee demise.
"It was his difficulty in getting along with staff," Frank said. "It was a consistent accusation during his tenure."
In the end, Frank said Steininger gave the decorated war vet a simple choice: "Jump - with or without a parachute."
Hoffmann chose the softer landing.
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