Fire Fighters to back Dodd in surprise move

International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) President Harold Schaitberger told The Hill Monday that Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) has won the union’s coveted endorsement.

In an exclusive interview with The Hill, Schaitberger said Dodd was the candidate who had “earned their support,” and that his long legislative record on labor’s behalf was the key to winning the endorsement.

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Schaitberger declined to comment on why other candidates, particularly those considered to be frontrunners, came up short. He said the Democratic field was strong but added that Dodd separated himself from the others by going beyond support for their legislative agenda and being “the guy who really carries our water” dating back to 1976.

Schaitberger and other union officials will accompany Dodd on an announcement tour beginning with a Washington press conference Wednesday after the executive council officially votes for the endorsement. That will be followed by a whirlwind three-state announcement tour of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada leading into Labor Day weekend.

The move, while sure to be viewed as unexpected given Dodd’s low poll numbers, was not entirely a surprise.

Schaitberger told The Hill earlier this month that being a front runner was by no means a consideration in the endorsement process.

“We really do not pay attention to the polls, which I think at this point are entertaining but ultimately useless,” Schaitberger said Monday.

Schaitberger said the union is not “naïve” as it looks to the challenge of elevating Dodd much like it did with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004. Dodd has barely registered in most early state and national polls.

“We make decisions that in some people’s view are not conventional,” Schaitberger said. “Whatever the D.C. people need to say, so be it. This is for real for us.”

The IAFF’s traditional strengths, at least in the case of Kerry in 2004, lie in its ability to organize locally and connect a candidate to smaller communities in smaller states that practice retail politics.

In Iowa, where community organization is the difference between winning and losing on caucus night, the fire fighters were the crucial difference for Kerry in 2004.

With Dodd, the challenge will not just be to put “boots on the ground” on his behalf or introduce him to local voters through novel approaches like the chili feed tours of 2004, although both of those goals will present significant challenges.

The IAFF will also be looking to expand its efforts into the fundraising arena, trying to help Dodd compete with the boatloads of money Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) are pulling in.

Schaitberger said that the IAFF endorsement has become “significant enough” that the candidate who wins it also wins a second look from donors who might have already given to other candidates or were keeping their powder dry.

When asked what the IAFF would do if Dodd does not last past the first contest in Iowa, Schaitberger’s reply was typical to anyone who knows him or spoke with him during Kerry’s dark days of 2003.

“We’re in it to win,” he said, adding that fire fighters love a challenge, “particularly when people say it can’t be done. That’s when we’re at our best.”

Dodd has been a longtime ally of fire fighters on their issues, particularly the 2000 FIRE Act. But IAFF officials said other factors like Dodd’s experience and vision on the Iraq War led them to his corner.

One official added that Dodd is the candidate who can most appeal to general election voters on crucial issues of national security.

At the IAFF presidential forum in March, Dodd and Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) appeared to connect most with the crowd, offering what one official at the time called “red meat and a six pack.”

The move to endorse Dodd will certainly raise questions about former Sen. John Edwards’s (D-N.C.) failure to secure the first major labor endorsement of the season.

Edwards has sought to build much of his 2008 campaign around his solidarity with labor unions.

When asked specifically about Edwards, Schaitberger said the former senator “has certainly been very supportive of labor, and in the last several years he has shown that.”