Kerry's Steady Flame
How the firefighters union became one of the candidate's most potent political allies
It may seem like ancient history now, but John Kerry hasn't forgotten the solemn late-night phone call he made in November to firefighters union president Harold Schaitberger. His presidential bid floundering as other big unions announced support for Howard Dean, the Massachusetts senator had just fired his campaign manager. And now he had more bad news for Schaitberger, whose International Association of Fire Fighters was the first and only major union to stick its collective neck out and endorse Kerry last September. "I just want to let you know that we've got some really bad numbers coming out tomorrow morning," Kerry said of an about-to-be-released poll showing him more than 30 percentage points behind Dean in New Hampshire. But before Kerry could say another word, Schaitberger cut him off. "I'm sure you've got other supporters to call," the mustachioed, 57-year-old recalls telling Kerry. "Use your time and energy with them, because you don't have to with us. We gave you our word. We'll be the last men standing."
His colleagues had been ribbing Schaitberger for weeks about his decision to buy a ticket on the Titanic, but the former Fairfax County, Va., firefighter and longtime Kerry supporter never flinched. Instead, he got together with dispirited firefighters in Iowa and New Hampshire and rallied them to Kerry's side. Many were already involved, but their signature yellow-and-black "Firefighters for Kerry" banners and T-shirts soon became omnipresent at rallies, debates, chili feeds, and pancake breakfasts.
A new "Drive With Five" incentive program pushed them to bring at least five nonfirefighters to Iowa caucus sites, spurring union members like Rick Kleinman. "I busted tail," the Ottumwa, Iowa, firefighter says of the 16 people he brought. Predisposed to taking orders and following through, the firefighters "caught their second wind and went at it even harder," Schaitberger says. "We were everywhere."
The firefighters claim just 263,000 members, making theirs only the AFL-CIO's 16th-largest union. But their presence in almost every neighborhood and enhanced public respect since the 9/11 attacks have made them a powerful political asset. In a year when other endorsements failed to sway voters, "Kerry wouldn't be the presumptive nominee without the firefighters," says Paul Begala, a former adviser to President Clinton and cohost of CNN's Crossfire.
It's not just thanks to their broad reach and organizational skills. Standing tall behind their candidate on the podiums in their yellow-and-black T-shirts, "it looks like a Chippendale's calendar," Begala says of the burly firefighters. They not only elbowed themselves into the best TV camera angles but also served as security guards at many of the more raucous rallies. "It's all designed to make you realize that [Kerry] is a guy who can keep you safe and secure," Begala says. "That has been absolutely central."
For his part, the candidate is reluctant to credit the firefighters solely for his success, but "they were the predominant presence for a period of time," Kerry said in an interview last week. "They've been an essential part of the campaign." Even some Republicans have shown grudging respect. When firefighters campaign for Kerry, "you don't see `union,' you see `fireman,' which makes you feel good," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz.