By Alex Distefano
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By Anna Merlan
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After the concert, the staff used the issues as an entrée to the unions. Smikle, who oversaw government relations, made calls to the Uniformed Firefighters Association and the PBA. "I said, 'I'm from Hillary's office and I heard the response at the concert,' " he recalls.
He and his colleagues kept on calling the union leaders. They met with them and explained what the senator wanted to do how she aimed to create a 9-11 health-monitoring program, for instance, and to push for homeland security funding.
It took months of behind-the-scenes conversations, but Clinton eventually got press conferences with the unions. First came the UFA event, in January 2002, at a Manhattan firehouse. The senator stood before a fire truck and announced the medical screening and tracking program for World Trade Center workers. Next was the one with the PBA, a few months later. At the NYPD's first precinct, flanked by cops and firefighters, she called for a better formula for homeland security funding.
The events went off without a hitch, though some feared the unions would bow out. Union insiders say their memberships still didn't take kindly to Clinton. "It had to be beat in our guys' heads that Hillary is a friend," offers a UFA source. "They didn't see it that way."
But Clinton's work helped forge a relationshipnot just with union heads, but with department leaders. The calls from her office continued, as did the press events and lobbying days. Eventually, the unions began to reach out to her. In August 2002, the PBA asked her to speak at a rally for pay raises. She accepted. She took the podium to scattered booing. But they cheered when she said it was "unconscionable" to block raises for cops and firefighters after 9-11.
"That," says the PBA insider, "may have been a turning point."
Clinton's work may have forged the ties, but her persistence is what changed minds. Firefighters have seen her take the lead on the 9-11 medical screening. In December 2001, she landed the initial $12 million for the program, then quickly filed legislation to make it more comprehensive. Eighteen months later, she convinced Senate colleagues to pass the bill, securing an additional $90 million. For nearly a year, as New York City waited for the money, she kept up the fight.
Meanwhile, police officers have watched her push for homeland security funding. In 2003, she issued two surveys of New York departments detailing the lack of money and crucial equipment. She emerged as a leading proponent of providing block grant money directly to municipalities and changing the formula to one based on threat and riskmeaning New York City would get more. She has filed and refiled legislation, met with administration officials, and written letters to President Bush.
And then, there are the smaller thingsthe way she helped the NYPD get $4 million to buy gas masks, for instance, or the FDNY tap into $132 million for crisis counseling.
Her record has left many fire and police officials singing her praises. Tom Scotto, the recently retired president of the Detectives Endowment Association, in Manhattan, ranks Clinton's efforts as a "10 plus," on a scale from one to 10. He says, "She has proved how talented she is just by her actions."
David Prezant, the deputy chief medical officer for the fire department, puts it this way: "I am her loyal servant, damn right! The care and attention she has provided the fire department has been phenomenal."
It's the kind of talk any politician would covet. Since 9-11, there has been a special aura around firefighters and cops. They are the nation's heroes. Any Democratic presidential candidateum, Hillarywould do well to have these guys on her side. Sheinkopf, the consultant, points out that they are disproportionately Irish Catholic and Italian Catholic malesthe same stripes of voters who have turned away from the Democratic Party in national elections.
"If she wants to run for president," Sheinkopf notes, "this is a constituency she has to haveor at least, she has to reduce their angst over her."
Her advisers take issue with the idea that Clinton has worked on 9-11 issues purely to win votes. They say she would have fought for firefighters and police officers regardless. If she happens to turn some folks as a result, it's a by-product. "She works hard, period," says Philippe Reines, her spokesperson. "If she doesn't win people over, she doesn't work any less hard for them. They're her constituents."
And not all her constituents are going to like her. One Queens firefighter tells the Voice that many of his fellow firefighters still have a hard time appreciating Clinton. Last year, he attended a UFA meeting where plenty of firefighters booed at the mention of her name. "Personally, I almost feel sorry for her," the firefighter says. "She's tripping herself up to give the guys what they need, yet they can't get over her other politics." They can't get over her liberal label or her Democratic bona fides.
Yet even among the toughest of the guys, the sentiment seems to be softening. More and more members, say Gorman and others, will say, "She's not my favorite but she's all right on our issues." Or they may admit they don't like her, but will credit her accomplishments. And when they see the senator in person, they may even respond to her. The PBA insider says every time the union takes Clinton to a precinct, "a lot of cops say, 'We don't like Hillary.' But when she walks into the room, everybody is in awe and taking pictures with her."
It still doesn't mean they'll vote for her, just that they respect her. But for Clinton, Sheinkopf says, that's "a big deal." He adds, "It's a big deal for someone who the right has tried to make believe is the Antichrist."