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    Published Monday, December 31, 2001

    Firefighters' endorsements now top political currency
    Candidates of both parties line up for stamp of approval by unions
    By Dan Smith


    SACRAMENTO -- One top-rated campaign consultant: $250,000.

    Legions of volunteers to walk precincts in the crucial days before an election: $100,000.

    An endorsement from a state firefighters organization in the aftermath of Sept. 11: priceless.

    Politicians and initiative campaigns are making a beeline to the doors of the California Professional Firefighters, the 28,000-member union whose stamp of approval is thought to be more important than ever this election cycle.

    "I've actually had candidates get tears in their eyes when we tell them we're going to endorse them," said Dan Terry, president of the group since 1973. "They are so happy to have it. Much more so than in the past. Conversely, people are much more bothered when they don't get the endorsement."

    Political surveys have long shown firefighting to be one of the most respected professions and an endorsement from a firefighting organization one of the most prized for a candidate or a cause.

    Terry's group is a sophisticated political operation, with its own mailing house and studio, and it supplements its endorsement muscle with campaign contributions from a political action fund culled from a sizable membership.

    Moreover, the firefighters carry no downside risk for a politician, said Republican political consultant Wayne Johnson. "It's always a plus," he said. "People don't necessarily make the distinction that you're talking about a union group ... and who's going to vote against you because firemen endorsed you?"

    But now, with the visual images of New York firefighters' bravery and tragedy perhaps forever imbedded in the collective public consciousness, more candidates are being more aggressive in their pursuit of the group's support.

    Terry said the group's image is more positive than ever. "And I say that with all humility and respect because I really wish the reason that we are more positive wasn't something that we live with every day and that's the fact that we lost 343 men in that attack back there."

    Although the labor-oriented group is officially bipartisan and endorses candidates of both major political parties, it clearly leans Democratic. It has endorsed Democrats in all eight statewide races and in 59 of the 70 legislative races for which it has made endorsements thus far.

    Because the California Professional Firefighters endorsement process typically starts with local firefighter unions and moves up to the state office, it is possible for a legislative candidate, for instance, to accumulate an impressive list of endorsers with the word "firefighters" in the name.

    And there are other statewide unions, such as the CDF Firefighters, which represent 4,500 employees with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Organizers say demand for their political imprimatur has increased as well.

    "What happened Sept. 11 only confirmed in people's minds that when everybody else is going down the stairs, the firefighters are going up the stairs," said Terence McHale, the group's policy director.

    Basically, the more firefighters, the better.

    "I'm sure everybody is desperate to have them," said Gale Kaufman, a Democratic political consultant. "The positive connection with firefighters always helps validate a campaign, but this year in particular ... without saying anything, it evokes a positive image."

    It is in contested Democratic primary races that the competition for the firefighter support has been especially pitched.

    Democrat Tom Umberg won the nod in the insurance commissioner's race over former Commissioner John Garamendi and Assemblyman Tom Calderon, who has a long list of labor endorsements.

    Umberg, an Army Reserve colonel and former assemblyman, told the firefighters' endorsement committee of comments Calderon and Garamendi made in a newspaper story about the prospect of Umberg being called into active military duty after Sept. 11. In the Los Angeles Times story, both noted that they would benefit by the loss of an opponent, but Calderon went a step further, saying Umberg's departure "would be a good thing."

    Bristling that anyone would take comfort in the fact that he might be called up for service, Umberg said he told the group "if somebody thinks that's a good thing, they don't deserve to hold public office ... and they endorsed me."

    Terry said the story had no effect on him and doubted it made the difference with the 10-member endorsement panel. But he noted that firefighters "are a paramilitary organization. We like guys in uniform. I can't tell you that it didn't help."

    Long before Sept. 11, the group became one of the first interest groups to sign on in favor of what became Proposition 45, a March ballot measure to alter term limits and give lawmakers four more years in office.

    But as a hard-fought campaign gets under way, the firefighters are beginning to emerge as a key proponent. Terry signed the argument for the measure that will appear in the ballot pamphlet sent to voters.

    "They're at the top of the charts right now," said Karin Caves, a spokeswoman for the campaign. "An initiative's credibility will rely to some degree on your endorsers. ... They have had a key role in this campaign and will continue to."

    But with the value-added joy of the endorsement also comes heightened risk, and political peril, to a campaign that dares step over the still-undefined line of exploiting the tragedy.

    "If you abuse a reference to Sept. 11, you'll get killed," Kaufman said. "There's a real fine line if voters think you're exploiting either what occurred or your connection to it."

    The issue has come up at least twice already in California. In Los Angeles, a City Council candidate, Sylmar Assemblyman Tony Cardenas, included images of ground zero with tributes from the local firefighters' union in a campaign brochure. In Bakersfield, a Democratic Assembly candidate was criticized for a mailer depicting her at ground zero.

    In both cases, their opponents fired back with mailers accusing them of turning tragedy into political opportunity.

    "People are going to have to be a lot more careful," said Johnson, who said he would advise his clients not to use any images of New York or mention Sept. 11.

    Terry said the firefighters won't hesitate to pull an endorsement from any candidate thought to be misusing it or the memory of the tragedy, or to launch a negative attack against an opponent. He intends to ask campaigns of endorsed candidates to allow the union to screen all campaign materials that include any reference to firefighters.

    "I have spent a lifetime -- as have 28,000 men and women in the fire service -- creating an image with the public that is positive, and I'm not going to allow anybody -- because they happen at a point in history to be running for an office -- do anything to lessen that image," Terry said. "They would be making a mistake if they did that, in my opinion. They would not only be hurting us, but they would be hurting themselves too."

    " The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good." - Samuel Johnson

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