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These days, the scene has become almost natural: Hillary Clinton, New York's junior senator, and a phalanx of firefighters and police officers, all standing united at some government venue, all demanding action on some 9-11 issue.
Last Thursday, Clinton's office staged a press conference to highlight her latest crusade for New York's bravest and finest. This time, the venue was the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. And this time, the 9-11 issue was the $125 million in aid for sick ground-zero workers, many of them uniformed firefighters and cops. The money was included in a promised $20 billion package for New York three years ago, but the Bush administration would like to rescind it. At the podium, Clinton blasted Bush "bureaucrats" for trying to back out of the president's pledge. "It's not right," she said, "and we must not let it happen."
There with her on Thursday were Nicholas Scoppetta, the FDNY fire commissioner; Peter Gorman, the Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA) president; Pam Delaney, the New York City Police Foundationa president; and a dozen more, many of whom she name-checked. It's easy to forget, but New York's first responders have not always stood behind their senator.
Remember the early days of her U.S. Senate term? The image of her as a liberal womana label that defined her as first ladydidn't go over well with cops and firefighters. When she showed up at an October 2001 benefit concert for 9-11 families at Madison Square Garden, the city's "heroes" recoiled. She walked onstage; they jeered. She offered remarks; they booed. Recalls someone who was backstage, "She was booed like I've never heard someone get booed before."
But just as Clinton has continued to court Jewish voters who were angry with her for having backed a Palestinian statewitness her high-profile visit to Israel this month as her latest outreach to themso has she stayed in the game of helping 9-11 families. Today, she has become something of a champion for them, and the overt hostility of firefighters and cops has largely dissipated. She has fought for their needs on Capitol Hill and built ties with their leaders. She has, in short, worked hard to woo her haters.
Hank Sheinkopf, the veteran Democratic consultant, says the senator "has done a lot of work to make these guys happy with her." As a result, she has taken what many political analysts perceived as a weaknessher unpopularity among cops and firefightersand attacked it. She has shown that she can turn enemies into allies, a skill she'll need if she does indeed run for president in 2008.
As Sheinkopf explains, "You prove to these groups that you share their values and make them feel comfortable with you." He adds, "Hillary Clinton understands this, and she has done it, post9-11."
Pre9-11, New York City cops and firefighters, like many voters, viewed Clinton's candidacy for Senate with suspicion. She was the outsider, the carpetbagger, the first lady whose only interests here were her political ambitions.
Gorman, of the local UFOA, says his ranks thought Clinton carried a lot of baggage. There were what he calls "the second-term negatives of Bill Clinton"the Whitewater scandal, the Monica ordeal. And then there was the Hillary stereotype.
"I come from a male-dominated profession," Gorman says, "and people saw her as a very aggressive first lady."
None of the local firefighters' unions backed the candidate in her 2000 bid. Nor did the police unions; Clinton had an especially chilly relationship with the cops. In January 2000, while on the campaign trail, she attended a civil rights celebration at Al Sharpton's Harlem headquarters, during which she referred to the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo as a "tragic murder." Her comments inflamed the officers, who accused her of tainting the trial of their four colleagues involved in the shooting.
Once elected, she took steps to reach out to firefighters and cops, even meeting with the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association board. "She told us, 'I made some statements that made you guys not look so good,' " one PBA insider recalls. Still, there wasn't much of a rapport with either of the groups.
Then came 9-11 and the embarrassing scene at Madison Square Garden. Her aides say she took the crowd's reaction seriously, although they point out that she did not walk off. Basil Smikle, a former aide turned political consultant, almost understates the situation: "We realized internally that we needed to address this problem."
Clinton has made a hallmark of homing in on a particular group's issuewhether it's contracts for defense manufacturers in the state or funding for former uranium workers stricken with cancerand pursuing that issue until she delivers. With the first responders, the issue was health and safety. She took on the question of long-term risks to those toiling at ground zero, exposed to all sorts of toxins. She visited the site repeatedly, and her office became inundated with callsnot only about the infamous World Trade Center cough, but about the lack of respiratory equipment. By the time of the Garden debacle, she had already asked her staff to research solutions.