Firefighters Flex Their Political Firepower

The cattle call season enters a new phase this week when thousands of firefighters from every congressional district in the country hear from a bipartisan group of presidential candidates in Washington, D.C.

Ten 2008 hopefuls -- notably, those not named Rudy Giuliani -- are slated to deliver back-to-back 15-minute speeches Wednesday to the nation's firefighters union. The multicandidate forums that have taken place thus far have been single-party affairs.

"There are those candidates that were invited that are not necessarily up and down on our issues," said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "But we want to make available to them the platform and an opportunity to make their case with our leadership and our members."

Schaitberger attributes his union's ability to attract four Republicans and six Democrats to three factors: firefighters' positive image among the public, their ubiquity and their middle-of-the-road orientation.

The 280,000-member IAFF, which gave a critical boost to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's bid for the Democratic Party's 2004 presidential nomination when it endorsed him, plans to make an endorsement in the 2008 race this fall.

Giuliani's absence from this event is raising eyebrows, especially because the former New York mayor is so closely associated with firefighters and Sept. 11. Giuliani was invited to attend the forum but ultimately declined the invitation, citing a scheduling conflict.

But tensions have been brewing between the firefighters and Giuliani for some time.

Friday, Schaitberger sent a letter to the IAFF's local affiliates blasting Giuliani for scaling back the effort to recover human remains at the World Trade Center site before all of the remains had been recovered.

"He chose to make a decision based on redevelopment pressures," Schaitberger told ABC News.

Giuliani's camp maintains that Giuliani was following the recommendations of safety experts who were brought in by the New York City Department of Design and Construction and the engineering-construction firm Bechtel.

Giuliani's campaign released a letter Friday from Lee Ielpi, a retired New York firefighter, saying: "There is no one who respects firefighters and first responders more than Rudy Giuliani."

Schaitberger believes Giuliani's decision to begin a "scoop-and-dump" operation on Nov. 2 deprived some of the families of the 343 firefighters who had died on 9/11 from having a proper burial, and he does not accept the Giuliani camp's safety claim.

"It is not a coincidence," Schaitberger said, "that the day after retrieving the assets" of the Bank of Nova Scotia, which had a vault under the World Trade Center, "is when he decided that he was concerned about the safety of our members."

"All of a sudden, now he is concerned about our safety," Schaitberger said. "No, not in our view."

Giuliani responded to the IAFF's criticism today, during a news conference in Washington, D.C.

"The firefighters are my heroes," said Giuliani before adding: "As far as any particular union is concerned … some tend to be heavily Democratic unions, so you can have all kinds of agendas there, but it does nothing for my bond with firefighters, or what I would do for them if I were president of the United States."

Schaitberger's letter Friday to IAFF's local affiliates is just the beginning of the union's effort to counter Giuliani, the Republican who has emerged as the front-runner for the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination.

Schaitberger says, however, that he has not tried to involve any other emergency-related organizations in the effort to oppose Giuliani.

"It's up to them," he said, based on "whatever their own individual experiences and opinions are."

The Wednesday participant with the shoddiest record on issues of concern to firefighters, according to the IAFF, is Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor who is running for the GOP's presidential nomination.

"His record, quite frankly, was mixed," Schaitberger said. "We would take issue with a number of his positions. He certainly did not support the right for our firefighters to have organizing recognition" and "bargaining rights."

Schaitberger is committed, however, to giving Gilmore a chance to make his case.

Two other Republicans speaking Wednesday -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. -- have also opposed collective bargaining rights as members of the U.S. Senate, according to Schaitberger.

"They have not signed on to that measure in the past," Schaitberger said, "and did not support the cloture vote that was before them in 2002."

Despite their differences over collective bargaining rights, Schaitberger was quick to praise McCain and Hagel, who are both Vietnam vets, for their service to the country.

Schaitberger also praised McCain for supporting firefighters in "several of the fire service programs and the fire grant programs," and Schaitberger credited him with "taking on," at times, the Bush administration, which Schaitberger described as "pretty consistently" trying to "undercut or underfund" infrastructure programs.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who is a Vietnam veteran, stands out from the other Republicans speaking at Wednesday's forum in that he has been "pro-collective bargaining" despite an otherwise "very conservative" record, according to Schaitberger. He also has been "very supportive" of federal firefighters on military bases.

Schaitberger singled out several Democrats for praise, as well.

"There are a number of them," he said, "who have really shown over time … their understanding of what our industry needs."

Schaitberger praised Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut for authoring the FIRE Act, which gives fire departments the ability to purchase new equipment and initiate education and training programs, as well as the SAFER Act, which gives fire departments the ability to alleviate critical shortfalls in professional and volunteer personnel.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico was praised by Schaitberger not only for his "extraordinary track record" when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives but also for "making sure that firefighters had collective bargaining rights" in New Mexico when he became governor.

In her capacity representing the Empire State, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., met with Schaitberger on the morning after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and he praised her for helping to "cut through the bureaucracy" and for her continuing efforts on behalf of firefighters.

Schaitberger said Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., had a "very strong connection with our profession over a long period of time." In a highly personal address to the IAFF in 2006, Biden thanked firefighters for saving his life and his home.

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.