WASHINGTON – In one of the first unofficial markers of the campaign cattle-call season, presidential candidates came Wednesday to preach heroism to the converted.
Most of the top Democrat and Republican contenders, with the notable absence of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, offered lyrical tribute and lavish praise to the largest firefighters union.
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois lauded those who served at home and abroad. Fellow Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York ticked off a list of ways that the federal government could repay the firefighters for their service. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona joined the chorus with his indictment of the government for not properly equipping the nation’s first responders.
The battle to win the firefighters union support is fundamentally important because of the union’s record of delivering votes, providing much-needed organization and sway with other sectors of the labor movement.
So it was a small surprise that Giuliani skipped the meeting with the International Association of Fire Fighters, but one that perhaps avoided the anticipated dressing-down he was in for among some members with sour memories of his tenure as New York mayor.
Even for Republicans who oppose labor initiatives and therefore stand little chance of winning the union’s endorsement, the forum presented an opportunity to wave the flag and offer hosannas for members of one of the country’s most popular professions. The show was heavily covered by national media, and the firefighters were immediately putting video highlights up on their Web site and on YouTube.
Besides, as one candidate put it, the friendship of even an individual firefighter goes a long way.
“The firefighters are important,” said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat. “They know everybody in their communities. And they’re respected.”
For anti-war Democrats always wary of appearing unsupportive of the troops, the event offered a moment to express their patriotism, a message that has added reach because many members of the union serve in the military or have family members and friends who do.
For their part, Republicans also emphasized areas of common ground. McCain dwelled heavily on governmental failure to properly equip emergency workers.
“This is intolerable,” he said. “All you ask is for the means to do your job successfully, so that the sacrifices you make on our behalf are not in vain. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
All of the declared presidential candidates were invited, but Republicans Mitt Romney and Giuliani did not attend.
IAFF general president Harold Schaitberger said Giuliani originally said he would come but later backed out citing a scheduling conflict.
Union leaders have complained that Giuliani reduced the number of firefighters doing recovery work after Sept. 11 and tried to expedite World Trade Center cleanup in a way the firefighters felt was not respectful of the victims. Schaitberger reiterated the criticisms of Giuliani on Wednesday.
Giuliani in the past has cited safety concerns for limiting access to the trade center site, but efforts to reach a spokesperson for comment on Wednesday were unsuccessful.