Firefighters Flex Their Political Firepower

As for former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., Schaitberger highlighted his working class roots.

"When he uses the term 'union,' I can feel it," Schaitberger said. "I don't want to sound like John Edwards, but when you're dad was a millworker" it gives you a "personal understanding and connection with the struggle of the working class, the struggle of the middle class."

Schaitberger said firefighters, whom he described as "domestic warriors," did not see Iraq War spending and domestic firefighter-related spending as being at odds with one another. He noted, however, that his members had undergone "almost a 180" on what policy they favored in Iraq.

Pre-2004, approximately 70 percent of IAFF members supported President Bush's prosecution of the war in Iraq, according to the union's own polling. Today, by contrast, 75 percent of IAFF members favor either withdrawal, drawing down with timetables or redeployment to the perimeters with benchmarks, according to Schaitberger.

Asked whether the IAFF would be looking for a candidate, like Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who does not have a pro-Iraq War vote to defend, Schaitberger said that he admired Obama but that he didn't think firefighters would gravitate to him on that basis.

"I don't believe it should be an issue," Schaitberger said. "I admire Mr. Obama who had a clear position and he did so from the very earliest point in this war. But the fact of the matter also is that he was not faced with the vote that others were faced with."

When the IAFF gets ready to make an endorsement in the fall, Schaitberger says that it will not consider issues such as abortion, prayer in school, right to own a firearm or same-sex marriage.

"Those are issues that we expect our members will deal with individually," he said.

Instead of focusing on social issues, the IAFF plans to communicate with its members on a host of economic and professional issues, including health care, pensions, equipment, resources and training.

For Schaitberger, the key questions for the presidential candidates courting his members are: "Do they have a career of understanding and appreciating the work that firefighters do?" and "Have they consistently used their good office -- wherever and whatever office they held -- to advance the agenda and the issues that are critical to our members?"

"It isn't just about how they voted on one specific bill," he said.

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