Firefighters are not rushing to hand out an endorsement

Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), sitting in a backroom of a New Hampshire firehouse in November of 2003, said he never considered withdrawing the union’s endorsement of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), even as the senator was tanking in the polls.

Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), sitting in a backroom of a New Hampshire firehouse in November of 2003, said he never considered withdrawing the union’s endorsement of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), even as the senator was tanking in the polls.

When Kerry won in Iowa and New Hampshire in late January 2004, Schaitberger was standing directly behind him.

Now, with Kerry out of the 2008 race, Schaitberger, in an hour-long interview with The Hill, said he already has begun the process of holding meetings with candidates, some over long dinners at the Prime Rib (former North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards) and others at their luxurious Georgetown homes (New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton), to determine who will receive the union’s support.

The Monday before Kerry announced on the Senate floor that he would not run again, the senator and 2004 Democratic nominee had lunch with Schaitberger, during which the union president said it was time to give the senator his “real opinion” about Kerry’s chances in 2008.

“I told him I thought it was a hill too hard for him to climb this time,” Schaitberger said, adding that the conversation had been a difficult one.

While Schaitberger and others with the firefighters’ union go to great lengths to demonstrate their loyalty to endorsed candidates — for example, continuing to back Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) in 2006 long after many Democrats had “jumped ship” — Schaitberger said the union would not automatically have endorsed Kerry; he would have had to go through the same process again.

That process has long been underway, as Schaitberger has been meeting with candidates from both sides of the aisle in preparation for the association’s Mar. 14 presidential forum.

The association has confirmations from Sens. Clinton, Barack Obama (D-Ill.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and potential candidate Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as well as Edwards and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D).

Former New York Gov. George Pataki (R), former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R), former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (R-Wis.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) all have been invited, but none had confirmed as of last week. Schaitberger said more invitations would be forthcoming.

While the forum will present the first chance the more than 1,000 local leaders will have to hear the candidates address firefighters’ issues, Schaitberger has been meeting with candidates for months.

Schaitberger said he has met with all of the leading Democratic candidates, including Edwards, Clinton, Dodd, Biden, Vilsack and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), as well as those who decided not to run, such as Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D).

He said he has not yet met with Obama, but only because of scheduling considerations.

While he declined to talk about the specifics of the various “intimate” conversations, Schaitberger said the candidates presented varying lengths of time in office and depths of relationship with the association, but added that all of the Democratic candidates are “friends of firefighters and friends of our union.”

Because the organization is divided almost evenly between registered Democrats, Republicans and independents, Schaitberger said they keep the endorsement process open to candidates from both parties.

As for Hagel, who has not ruled out a run, Schaitberger said he views him “as a potential candidate until he indicates he’s not.”

And an association spokesman said, “Because of [Hagel’s] position on the war and the potential for it to turn around on McCain, he has got to be viewed as a potential candidate.”

On the ground in early states like New Hampshire, the association brings unique advantages with its endorsement, like the recognizable town firehouse, where Kerry packed houses with chili dinners, often several in a day, as he mounted his comeback.

“The biggest thing we bring is boots on the ground, organization, visibility,” the head of the New Hampshire association, Dave Lang, said. “This is not a name-only endorsement.”

Lang said the firefighters used to tell voters, “We’ve got chili as hot as our candidate.”

Kerry has high regard for the IAFF, stating, “I’ll never forget the support the IAFF showed the Democratic Party in 2004 and will always be grateful for their hard work and friendship. They got on board with our campaign early, they hung in through the tough times, they opened their firehouses in New Hampshire and Iowa to thousands so people could get to know me even when I was 35 points down in the polls. They’re the most fiercely loyal, respected, trusted out there, our true American heroes, and I’m proud to call so many of them friends.” 

Lang said he started hearing from candidates in December 2004, and he has been attending candidates’ events for months, adding he views Obama and Clinton as “attractive candidates” and Biden as “extremely attractive.”

He added he has not heard from Edwards because the former senator appears to be spending more time in Iowa and Nevada, the sites of the country’s first caucuses.

Schaitberger said the chili feeds represent the creative side of the process, but the logistical side — phone bankers, canvassers and, in Iowa, caucus-goers — is where the meat of the endorsement lies.

In Iowa in 2004, where former Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) had been slugging it out for months with different, better-known labor organizations at their back, Schaitberger said their organization paid off for Kerry.

“In Iowa, John really came out of nowhere,” Schaitberger said.

He said the association didn’t allow its union members to attend caucus meetings with other union members, but instructed them instead to take four or five nonmembers. The same applied to members’ spouses.

At the actual caucus sites, Schaitberger said the members, because of the nature of their profession, knew the buildings well, knew where the entrances were and where to hang the bold black-and-gold IAFF signs so that they met the line of sight of anyone walking in the door who was undecided or soft on a candidate.

With the 2008 campaign already in high gear, Schaitberger said that the association would make its endorsement in late summer or early fall, and that despite the long calendar and ups and downs of a marathon campaign season, the endorsement, once given, would never waver.

To illustrate his association’s commitment, Schaitberger tells the story of a 2 a.m. phone call he received from Kerry the night before the first Zogby poll was to come out in New Hampshire, showing the senator 32 points down.

“I told him, ‘You got our word,’” Schaitberger said. “‘You’ve got my hand, and we’ll be the last man standing with you.’”