WASHINGTON—Of all the people who are running for president, none is more closely associated with firefighters than former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
New York's firefighters rushed into the World Trade Center's twin towers and onto the pages of history on Sept. 11, 2001. Giuliani made his national reputation leading his city through that crisis, now the keystone of his campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
Yet when the International Association of Firefighters gathers Wednesday in Washington to hear from a slew of presidential candidates from both major parties, Giuliani will be missing.
The union can't stand the former mayor. The feeling apparently is mutual. And that has ramifications for the nomination battle, threatening to undercut Giuliani's main claim to fame as an undisputed hero of Sept. 11 while delivering the support of one of the most important unions in politics to some rival candidate.
The grudge dates to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, when hundreds of firefighters continued to search through the rubble of the trade center for the bodies or remains of their comrades.
They recovered the remains of 101 and thought they were on the verge of finding many more when Giuliani cut the number of firefighters allowed to search. He also started what firefighters called a "scoop and dump" operation to speed the removal of debris from the site.
"Mayor Giuliani's actions meant that firefighters and citizens who perished would either remain buried at Ground Zero with no closure for families, or be removed like so much garbage and deposited at the Fresh Kills landfill," union President Harold Schaitberger said in an open letter to the union's members Friday.
"Our local presidents at the time attempted to meet with the mayor to stop this disrespectful treatment of those who perished, but he refused to see them face to face."
While Giuliani said he cut back the search teams out of concern for their safety, Schaitberger said he thought Giuliani had shifted from the slow sifting of rubble to "scoop and dump" because tens of millions of dollars' worth of gold and silver finally had been recovered and developers wanted a speedier cleanup.
"He valued the money and gold," Schaitberger said, "more than he valued the lives and memories of those lost."
Protests followed. Searching resumed, and more bodies or remains eventually were recovered. But the damage had been done between the mayor and the union.
That matters. For one thing, the firefighters union has a better record of delivering votes than larger, better-known unions. In 2004, for example, it helped deliver the Iowa caucuses—and the Democratic nomination—to John Kerry while larger, better-known unions couldn't deliver for their choice, Howard Dean.
Schaitberger is urging union locals around the country to reject Giuliani's pleas for help. But he hasn't been able to lock out the former mayor entirely.
Giuliani's campaign last week announced support from a group of firefighters in South Carolina, the site of the first primary in the South. Fire Chief Lewis Hayes of Croft, S.C., said Giuliani showed "unwavering support" for New York's firefighters.
Giuliani insists that he still has a special kinship.
"I think I have a real bond with firefighters," Giuliani told my colleague Bill Douglas and other reporters Monday. "Unions, some agree, some disagree, some have different agenda items, some tend to be heavily Democratic unions, so you can have all kind of agendas there. But it does nothing for my bond with firefighters and what I would do for them if I were president of the United States."
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(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau. Write to him at: McClatchy Newspapers, 700 12th St. N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-3994, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)