July 11, 2007 -- A national celebrity after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has cultivated an image as a close friend to police officers and firefighters -- the first responders who won wide praise for heroism during the nation's worst terrorist attacks.
But that image is in for a pounding by the nation's largest firefighters' union, which broke publicly with Giuliani after the attacks and has since emerged as perhaps his most prominent group of critics.
The International Association of Fire Fighters Wednesday released a 13-minute video that seeks to destroy Giuliani's reputation as America's mayor.
Firefighters Burn Giuliani's 9/11 Image
With dramatic footage of the Twin Towers collapsing and interviews with firefighters and family members of 9/11 victims, the labor union's video strikes at the core of Giuliani's campaign rationale by depicting his response to the attacks as an exercise in myth-making.
"The things that we needed to do our jobs even better, we didn't have, because of his administration," Steve Cassidy, a New York City firefighter from the Bronx and the president of the city's largest firefighters union, says in the video. Cassidy endorced President Bush in 2004.
"On the heroic memory of 343 dead firefighters, he wants to run for president of the United States. It's a disgrace."
Giuliani Fires Back
The Giuliani campaign dismisses such criticism as politically motivated griping.
Hours before the firefighters association began circulating the video, the Giuliani campaign issued a statement branding the union the "International Association of Partisan Politics," noting that the union has endorsed Democrats for president going back to Michael Dukakis in 1988.
"In 2008, I expect these same union bosses to endorse Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards, so today's comments are just a first step in that process," Lee Ielpi, a retired New York City firefighter, said in a statement distributed by the Giuliani campaign. "Fortunately, rank-and-file firefighters know the difference between politics and leadership."
IAFF president Harold Schaitberger said the union decided to aggressively address Giuliani's record on and around 9/11 because the former Republican mayor has made his response to the attacks the centerpiece of his campaign.
He said he wants his 280,000 members to have more information about the former mayor's record before deciding whom to support in 2008.
"We have Giuliani and his campaign out there trying to sign up firefighters, get them onboard, and many of them have not really fully understood the real story from our perspective about 9/11," Schaitberger said. "This is to make sure that our members know the facts of our relationship with the mayor. He is building his candidacy on the backs of 9/11 victims."
Video Details Firefighters' Criticism
The documentary-style video -- titled "Rudy Giuliani: Urban Legend" -- specifically criticizes Giuliani for failing to ensure that firefighters had working communications devices; deciding to place the city emergency command center in the World Trade Center even after the 1993 terrorist attack at the Twin Towers; and deciding to abandon efforts to recover remains of dead firefighters as he sought a quick clean-up of Ground Zero.
"We have no idea how he died in the towers," says Al Regenhard, a retired police officer whose firefighter son, Christian, was killed on 9/11. Regenhard identifies himself as a Republican who voted for Giuliani.
"We haven't recovered his remains, so we don't have any information."
Such claims are potentially damaging to Giuliani, because he has built his campaign upon his perception as a strong leader who capably led a city through a tragedy.
Without 9/11, Giuliani almost certainly wouldn't be a serious presidential contender, and he uses his experience on that day to make the case that he understands the stakes in the war on terror.
The Giuliani campaign takes issue with each of the claims made in the ad. They argue that the failure of some fire radios was inevitable on 9/11, given the clogged communication channels and the large volume of concrete and steel at the World Trade Center.
Operations to recover firefighters' remains were abandoned earlier than some firefighters wanted out of concern for their safety, the former mayor's camp says. And his decision to put the Office of Emergency Management in the World Trade Center complex was based on advice offered by subordinates, said Howard Safir, who served as fire commissioner and, later, police commissioner when Giuliani was mayor.
"He got bad advice, and relied on some people who appeared to have the expertise, and they did not," Safir said. "I believe it was a mistake, but it was in good faith."
Giuliani has defended his decision on the emergency management center by noting that it was chosen in part because of its proximity to the New York field offices of key federal agencies, including the FBI, the CIA and the Secret Service.
Safir said Giuliani was always supportive of the needs of firefighters, citing his decision to free up $10 million so the department could purchase fireproof gear early in his tenure as mayor.
"This is politics -- it's mostly nonsense. The fact is that nobody's a better friend to firefighters than Rudy Giuliani," he said. "When I go around the country and talk to firefighters -- not union officials -- they love Rudy. Union leaders are not firefighters. Union leaders are politicians."
Union Historically Supports Democrats
Schaitberger, the union president, said his union is nonpartisan.
Though the union leans distinctly toward Democrats -- as do most labor organizations -- the IAFF sends about a third of its political donations to Republicans, Schaitberger said.
In last year's elections, the union supported Republicans, including Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, former New York Rep. John Sweeney, and former Pennsylvania Rep. Curt Weldon.
Local fire unions in New York endorsed Giuliani in his two successful mayoral runs, in 1993 and 1997, though the unions' relationship with Giuliani soured amid contract disputes late in this tenure as mayor. Some 12,000 New York City firefighters are represented nationally by the IAFF.
Though some critics have compared the IAFF's attacks on Giuliani to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's broadsides against Democrat John Kerry in 2004, Schaitberger said he had been careful not to stretch facts.
"You know the difference? Everything in our video is accurate and the truth," he said. "If it has the same effect, so be it. Frankly, it's my hope."