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Political Division Shows at Station Houses

Many firefighters in New York like Bush's response to 9/11. Others question commitment.

September 03, 2004|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — In the days after 9/11, the hearts of New York firefighters ached for more than 300 of their dead comrades. But at least the whole world ached with them.

Three years later, the Fire Department of New York finds itself drooping through a hot summer that includes a firehouse sex scandal, unsigned labor contracts and the street-jamming Republican National Convention.

So it was with a complicated mix of pride, disinterest and cynicism that firefighters here received news that their largest union had endorsed President Bush for a second term.

A letter from the Uniformed Firefighters Assn. of Greater New York lauded the president for "leadership and compassion [that] sustained us during our darkest hour." It went on to say that Bush's "post-Sept. 11 policies have strengthened our nation by taking the war to the terrorists."

The president's reelection campaign made the most of that moment. As Bush arrived here Wednesday to accept the Republican nomination for president, televised images were flashed on screens at Madison Square Garden of his meeting with more than 100 city firefighters at a community center in Queens.

The firefighters shouted "Four more years!" when Bush and First Lady Laura Bush arrived, and the president appeared a bit teary-eyed when he was presented with a fire helmet emblazoned with "Commander in Chief."

The endorsement, however, was the exception in this election season. Most firefighter locals around the country have backed Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry.

Kerry also won over the 250,000-member International Assn. of Fire Fighters -- his first big union endorsement -- last September. At the time, union President Harold Schaitberger excoriated Bush for leaving firefighters to prepare for terrorist attacks when "we haven't received a meaningful dollar in the last 16 months of promises."

Some of New York's firefighters seconded that view in interviews this week.

"Per capita, I think they are getting like $57 a person in Wyoming for homeland security whereas we are getting like $10 a head," said firefighter Bobby Szwed, 40, as he stood near the firehouse adjacent to the World Trade Center that lost five men on Sept. 11. Szwed said it took nerve for Republicans "to have the convention in this town when you haven't done anything for us in the last three years."

Bush has blamed the Republican-controlled Congress for not moving to approve all of his spending requests for firefighters and other emergency "first responders."

The majority of about a dozen firefighters interviewed around Manhattan, however, said they favored Bush over Kerry.

"I think 9/11 made guys more conservative," said Brendan Manning, an engine officer in the Bronx. "It made things a little bit more real. A lot of guys you worked with every day were down there [buried at ground zero] and you were on your hands and knees digging for them."

Manning said he was impressed that Bush came to the disaster scene on Sept. 14, 2001. "He was there, " Manning said. "He was there."

Lt. Dennis Meyers, stationed in Flushing, Queens, worried that Kerry would be weak on defense.

"With Kerry in office another 9/11 could happen," Meyers said. "With Bush, he is going to try to protect us."

Ever New Yorkers, several of the firefighters were not ready to take endorsements -- even from their own union -- at face value. There was speculation that Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg might have made promises to the union hierarchy about a settlement in long-stalled contract talks in exchange for the group's approval of Bush. Other firefighters wondered whether Schaitberger's constant presence at Kerry's side on the campaign trail suggested he was gunning for an appointment in a Kerry administration.

At a brick station house in Midtown on Thursday evening, a burly engine officer mustered with dozens of others, ready for any special duty related to the Republican convention.

He chuckled at the notion that Bush and Kerry probably would appear soon in television ads alongside firefighters.

"I mean, everyone loves a firefighter, right?" he said.

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