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 woman—a label that defined her as first lady—didn’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 state—witness her high-profile visit to Israel this month as her latest outreach to them—so 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 weakness—her unpopularity among cops and firefighters—and 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, post–9-11.”
Pre–9-11, 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 issue—whether it’s contracts for defense manufacturers in the state or funding for former uranium
workers stricken with cancer—and 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 calls—not 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.
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 relationship—not 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 risk—meaning 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 things—the 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 candidate—um, Hillary—would do well to have these guys on her side. Sheinkopf, the consultant, points out that they are disproportionately Irish Catholic and Italian Catholic males—the 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 have—or 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.”