In Washington, an unexpected sighting of ... loyalty

Mark Shields's picture

As a general rule, candidate endorsements in political campaigns are both over-reported and overrated.

Think about it: When was the last time you, or anybody either of us knows, said, “I fully intended to vote for John Kerry for president until my lieutenant governor endorsed George W. Bush and made me change my mind.”

My one exception to that rule about paying no heed to endorsements would take place if and when the spouse of one candidate publicly endorses his or her opponent.

Another possible exception to the rule about ignoring endorsements may well have occurred just before Labor Day weekend, when the 281,000-member union of firefighters deliberately broke with the established Washington practice of backing and sucking up to front-runners and instead endorsed long-shot presidential candidate Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

This is getting to be a habit with the firefighters and their president, the dapper Harold Schaitberger, who in 2003 became the only union to endorse John Kerry — who almost immediately fell 30 points behind a surging Howard Dean in New Hampshire polls. That’s when the firefighters increased their efforts and almost single-handedly picked Kerry up, most especially in his come-from-behind victory in the Iowa Caucuses.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Phil Dine, in his superb new book “State of the Unions — How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy and Regain Political Influence,” quotes then-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who after stipulating candidate Kerry’s skills, attributes that Iowa win to “the unanticipated level of organization of the firefighters: ‘They willed it,’ he says — which is a sentiment shared by key operatives for the 2004 campaigns of Dean and (Richard) Gephardt, including union officials who backed the two candidates.”

It is no exaggeration for the firefighters to say in endorsing Dodd that “we ignored the polls. We ignored the campaign money, we ignored the pundits, who are usually off-base, especially this early.”

Sen. Hillary Clinton, the clear leader in all national polls for the Democratic nomination and who did overcome suspicions about her husband’s free-trade policies to win the endorsement of the Machinists Union, has worked closely with New York firefighters since coming to the Senate.

Nobody has been more steadfast on union picket lines and in fighting for increases in the minimum wage than former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who received the backing of the Carpenters Union.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, without extensive personal or legislative history with the union, was never seriously considered by the firefighters.

What then made the firefighters overcome the deep Washington-political compulsion to “be with the winner” and make such an early and politically risky endorsement? Schaitberger’s waggish explanation: It’s “always best in politics to be a first responder.”

But the reality, similar to their Kerry endorsement, looks to be motivated by nothing more on the part of the firefighters than the quaint and antique value of loyalty.

Yes, ever since Sept. 11, 2001, when 343 of the union’s members, following the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center, marched into the jaws of death and the fires of Hell, both the visibility and the public respect for heroic firefighters has grown exponentially. I know of no politician, no matter how liberal or how conservative, who wouldn’t step over small children to be pictured with the men and women who fight fires.

But long before that unforgettable day, for 26 years in the Senate Dodd had been working, writing and helping pass laws to guarantee collective bargaining rights for firefighters and to eventually provide $2.8 billion in federal funds for fire departments. In candid, if unintentionally impolitic, explanation, Shaitberger said of Dodd, “He’s really carried our water.”

Whatever lies ahead, Chris Dodd has the comfort of knowing that no matter how powerful or how well-heeled his opponents may be, that he will never be in that campaign foxhole alone. He can know the loyal firefighters will have his back.


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