IF YOU THINK the presidential election is insanely close, check this out: A local political standoff was decided by a mere two votes. Bob Hasegawa, the reform-minded secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 174, lost his election bid for a fourth term in office. Hasegawa tried to contest 59 out of 3,000 ballots for their eligibility, but after a long, tense meeting last week, an independent elections committee ruled against him.

Hasegawa's loss is more than just a personal blow. Like the hotly contested presidential election, it highlights a stark ideological rift. Rather than Republican versus Democrat, however, the Teamster divide pits reformer union men against the old-guard union men. Hasegawa lost to old-guard candidate Scott Sullivan.

It's easy to have cardboard images of Teamster reformers and old-guard leaders especially when old-guard leaders won't return phone calls. The images go something like this: The old guard supports the established authority of the Teamsters, and the reformers support progressive change for more democratically run unions. However, a few monkey wrenches have been thrown into the mix lately. For example, in 1998, reform-movement poster boy Ron Carey disgraced progressives and ended his career as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters when he misused Teamster funds to help his own re-election. Meanwhile, old-guard symbol and labor powerhouse James P. Hoffa, who succeeded Carey, has defied the low expectations cast by his corrupt father and the old wing of the union. He's been getting praise from national media for rejuvenating the Teamsters and getting the union back on its financial feet.

Enter Hasegawa, whose narrow loss after nearly a decade of progressive leadership may be another sign that the sands are shifting.

Hasegawa, who was head of Local 174 throughout the 1990s, had pushed for greater democracy in his union at every turn, trying to energize his members with a reformed view of the meaning of solidarity. At 174, it was an uphill battle--and, apparently, a losing one. Hasegawa tried to get members, many of whom just want to pay dues and benefit from union protection, involved. The 174 leader, who made less than $80,000 a year, managed to raise a strike fund tallying more than $2 million, meaning his local can threaten to strike--and mean it. Case in point: Local 174 is honoring the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild's strike against The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Explains Mike Brannan, Hasegawa's former campaign contract coordinator: "You have to challenge your own members to be the union. And [Hasegawa's members] had a lot of success with that."

So why did Hasegawa lose?

"[Reform's] always harder," Brannan says. "[And] the old guard has always made this union a target."

Hasegawa may appeal his narrow defeat, but the deck is stacked against him. Any appeal would be put before the state Joint Council of Teamsters, which is run by a veteran prince of the old guard--Local 763's Jon Rabine. The chance that Rabine, who despises Hasegawa, would help a progressive are about as good as Al Gore's chances with the Florida state legislature.

Indeed, Rabine is currently in an election battle of his own, facing off against one of Hasegawa's comrades from the progressive wing of the Teamsters. Rabine has been in power at Local 763 for 30 years, and uses old-school politics to run the show--few regular union members are encouraged to participate. General meetings at Rabine's local are rarely called and sparsely attended. Rabine, who makes $108,000 a year--and an extra $100,000-plus as a state and national Teamster official--has barely any money in his local's strike fund. At 763, companies that negotiate contracts with Rabine know that Rabine often can't make viable threats about the picket line. Case in point: Local 763 is not honoring the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild's strike against the dailies, even though 763's participation could act as a major factor in the strike's success. Rabine cut a secret, separate contract deal with newspaper management.

What's at stake for Rabine's election? According to his reform-minded opponent, David Reynolds, a hell of a lot. "Most of the members at 763 are disappointed, dissatisfied, and disillusioned. [Rabine] doesn't see himself as a servant of the members," Reynolds accuses. Reynolds says he wants to do what Hasegawa did for Local 174: democratize the union and strengthen the Teamsters' ability to threaten a strike.

A noble goal, but judging from Hasegawa's recent loss, it doesn't seem to be what many local Teamsters want.