Where's Rudy? Perhaps no candidate in the 2008 trail mix is as closely associated with the response to 9/11 than former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. So you might assume that if any candidate had the endorsement of the firefighters, it would be "America's Mayor."
But when firefighters from every congressional district in the country met in Washington this week to flex their collective muscle, a bipartisan collection of White House hopefuls quickly assembled to impress the 280,000-member bloc whose endorsement results in priceless political capital, except for one -- Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani was invited to attend the International Association of Fire Fighters candidate forum but ultimately declined, citing a scheduling conflict. His decision not to participate brought to the forefront political tensions that have brewed between Giuliani and the firefighters for some time.
Giuliani's Actions Criticized by Firefighters
Last week Harold Schaitberger, president of the IAFF, sent a letter to the union's local affiliates blasting Giuliani for scaling back the effort to recover human remains at the World Trade Center site before all remains had been recovered. It's a decision Schaitberger believes deprived some of the families of the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11 from giving some a proper burial.
"He chose to make a decision based on redevelopment pressures," Schaitberger told ABC News.
Giuliani's camp maintains that the former New York City mayor was following the recommendations of safety experts brought in by the New York City Department of Design and Construction and the engineering-construction firm Bechtel.
"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."
The Giuliani Response
Giuliani responded to the IAFF's criticism earlier this week in Washington.
"The firefighters are my heroes," said Giuliani. "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 said, 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 First Bipartisan Cattle Call
The IAFF's candidate forum marked a new phase for the 2008 presidential cycle. Ten hopefuls from both sides of the aisle delivered speeches to the nation's firefighters, a 280,000-member bloc whose endorsement results in priceless political capital. (The multicandidate forums that have taken place so far have been single-party affairs.)
"There are those candidates that were invited that are not necessarily up and down on our issues," said Schaitberger. "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 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.
The White House hopeful 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."
But in his remarks, Gilmore pledged to win the firefighters' endorsement and the GOP nomination.
"Now some would say that there's no room for a Republican in a union hall. Well, I don't agree with that," Gilmore said. "The fact is that I believe if you understand the concerns of union families, then you are in a position to go ahead and get that endorsement, and I'm gonna get this endorsement of this union."
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.
At the Wednesday event, Hunter vowed to rebuild the country's "arsenal of democracy" and make it a priority to rebuild the American economy.
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 writing 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 your 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."
Speaking before the firefighters, Edwards highlighted his commitment to universal health care and challenged others in the 2008 presidential ring to do the same.
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 an 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 didn't think firefighters would gravitate to him on the basis of his Iraq War vote.
"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."
Like Edwards, Obama's thrust focused on health care.
Obama spoke explicitly about his health care goals in terms of what he wanted to see happen at the end of his first term as president.
"By the end of my first term as president," Obama told the firefighters, "we will make sure that everyone has universal health care in this country."
When the IAFF gets ready to endorse a candidate in the fall, Schaitberger said it would 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.