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9/11 Families' Voice Is Cracking as They Step Onto Political Stage

September 11, 2004|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — For nearly three years, the families of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks have been a voice of conscience and remembrance as the nation grapples with questions about terrorism and security.

Many of those who lost loved ones have tried to remain above the partisan fray, even as they spoke out on a range of issues. But as the country today marks the anniversary of the attacks, a growing number of family members have become embroiled in the 2004 presidential campaign debate.

Some have endorsed Republican President Bush or Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry, and some have taken strong positions for or against the war in Iraq. Both parties featured 9/11 family members at their recent conventions, and as these individuals play a more direct role on the political stage, some observers think their activism, however heartfelt, could diminish the considerable influence the families have amassed.

"We've gotten to the point where each party has its own family members to show off, and after a while this demystifies the nonpartisan grieving that had been such a big part of their image," said Fred Siegel, political science professor at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. "As traditional politics takes over, the mystique begins to fade."

Family members have bitterly criticized either party for actions they perceive as exploiting the 2001 attacks. But they also contend they have a right to speak their minds on issues that affected them so painfully. Even the most partisan among them note that when they back a candidate, they are speaking strictly for themselves.

"None of us pretends to be speaking for our organization if we as individuals decide to back a candidate," said Anthony Gardner of the Coalition of 9/11 Families, a group seeking to preserve the footprints of the World Trade Center's fallen twin towers. "We speak out on political issues -- but we keep the lines very carefully drawn."

Such distinctions are lost on some experts, who suggest that family members once united by grief have now broken into factions that do not speak with one voice.

"The 9/11 families are the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the corner, sitting on the table and in some cases sitting on the politicians," said veteran pollster Frank Luntz.

"They are a force when they want to be. But their views have splintered over time, and no one knows how they'll affect Bush or Kerry," he said. "They are truly a wild card in the race."

Few family members ever dreamed their politics would become a public issue.

For Frank Siller, the decision to endorse Bush was a simple matter of honoring the memory of his younger brother, Stephen, a New York firefighter who died when the towers collapsed. He was thrilled when a local congressman invited him to the Republican National Convention in New York last month to sit in the box of the first President Bush.

"To me, this is a question of fighting terrorism, and I told President Bush that I was praying for his son to keep up the good fight," said Siller, a Staten Island furrier. "Why shouldn't I speak out on an important issue like this during the campaign?"

Siller was never much of a political animal. But after the terrorist attacks, he said, "the world turned upside down for people like us. We all have to get involved."

Virginia Bauer couldn't agree more. She was a New Jersey homemaker on the morning her husband, David, died at the World Trade Center, and afterward the former Merrill Lynch analyst decided to get involved in public life.

Now the state's secretary of commerce, she was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Bauer, a former Republican, has criticized Congress for not providing enough domestic security aid to New Jersey, which lost nearly 700 residents on Sept. 11. She thinks the country needs a fresh start in its battle against global terrorism.

"I don't hate Bush, I think he's a good man, but I think we definitely need to explore new directions," Bauer said. "I'm troubled by the war [in Iraq], and it makes perfectly good sense now for a 9/11 family member to get involved in this election."

In the beginning, there was no time for politics.

After the attacks, many family members were caught up in grief and simple questions of survival. They had to sort out finances, and many focused on the issue of federal compensation for the families who had lost someone. Some became prominent activists in the fight to increase the money paid out.

Others lobbied heavily for the creation of the Sept. 11 commission, a bipartisan panel that investigated the tangled history leading up to the attacks. Many observers give family members much of the credit for helping to establish the independent commission last year, an idea at first resisted by the Bush administration.

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