Courting political power brokers at a recent closed-door meeting, Jeb Bush included one unlikely face.
There among big names from the worlds of lobbying, fundraising and politics was one leader of a labor union, Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “They went around the room and introduced themselves. They came to me, and you could almost see everyone taking note,” he said later of the meeting hosted by the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
That meeting, one of several Bush held in Washington over the last month, was an important moment in the former Florida governor’s campaign to woo the nation’s political A list as he considers a run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
The firefighters’ union is likely to endorse a Democrat for president, just as it’s done in every recent election. But lots of members have a clear affection for Bush, a strong supporter of their interests when he was governor. And that also could temper the firefighters’ support for likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“Jeb Bush was a governor who understood our profession,” Schaitberger told McClatchy, “and had a decent track record of supporting our agenda.”
The union plans to hear from candidates at a March forum in Washington and to make an endorsement later this year.
Unions have long been important Democratic supporters and donors, but the rank and file has been more willing to consider Republicans. About 18 percent of 2012 presidential voters lived in union households; 58 percent voted for President Barack Obama but a solid 40 percent went for Republican Mitt Romney.
The firefighters union, for example, estimates its membership is about 40 percent Democrat, 40 percent Republican and 20 percent unaffiliated.
While the union’s money and manpower are hardly a guarantee of success, it can matter. In 2004, then-Sen. John Kerry was in a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination with Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, the favorites of most unions.
The firefighters were the only major union to back Kerry, and they poured time and manpower into the Kerry campaign. Their presence throughout Iowa’s 99 counties was crucial — every community has a firehouse or has dealt with the people who work there.
They helped propel Kerry to a come-from-behind victory over Dean in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus. Dean reacted with a now infamous scream on TV; Kerry went on to win the nomination.
The union was less effective in the 2008 cycle. It backed another longtime supporter, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, for the Democratic nomination. But Dodd’s campaign fizzled and died in Iowa. The union supported President Barack Obama in the general election.
In this election cycle, the firefighters are likely to have another old friend to consider, Clinton.
She would appear to have the edge for their endorsement. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Clinton, then a senator from New York, quickly helped the firefighters get aid and resources.
Bush, though, probably would not be subject to a negative campaign from the firefighters, and their local word of mouth could be a boon.
“The AFL-CIO and the service workers unions are more prominent, but because of the public safety aspect, the firefighters have a lot of respect. That translates to clout,” said Wayne MacDonald, a former New Hampshire Republican chairman.
Their criteria for support is simple: Back us and we’ll back you, or at least back away from hurting you. In the 2012 election cycle, the union spent $5.3 million, and in last year’s elections, spent $6.4 million. In recent years, as Republicans have turned more conservative, contributions have been tilted more toward Democrats.
The union did back five winning Republican U.S. Senate candidates last year and made no endorsement in North Carolina and Virginia, where Democratic incumbents faced tough challenges.
Bush is recalled fondly because as governor, he pushed a plan to restore some pension benefits to firefighters and law enforcement officers that had been reduced several years earlier. He also named Charles Kossuth Jr., a veteran firefighter and union official, as a commissioner of the powerful Florida Public Employees Relations Commission.
The Florida Professional Firefighters union endorsed Bush for governor in 1998 and 2002. James Tolley, the Florida union’s president, said Bush could do well among members next year.
Sympathetic firefighters also could give Bush credibility with working-class voters. Teachers’ unions were angry at him for his efforts to revamp the state’s education system. Government employees’ organizations disliked how he ended civil service protection for thousands of workers.
“He drew the line at firefighters and law enforcement,” said Matthew Corrigan, author of “Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida.”
The national firefighters union will consider other Republicans and Democrats. Virtually all potential candidates will get a chance, though one exception is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
He’s not invited to the March forum. “He’s been trying to destroy our retirement system from day one,” Schaitberger said. “He dishonored their service as public servants.” Christie has been pushing for cuts to future pensions, citing the system’s growing unfunded liabilities.
Their ire at Christie illustrates the other strategic edge firefighters offer. “You can’t double-cross us and get away with it,” said Schaitberger.
Sometimes people do. The union had an icy relationship with former President George W. Bush, particularly after he vetoed a 2002 spending bill he had earlier said he’d sign. It was to provide financial help for the firefighters, including money to help improve radio communications.
Jeb Bush, though, has a very different history, a plus in an election where voters are likely to listen to the people who rescue and protect them.
That’s why, said MacDonald, “the firefighters can be useful.”