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October 20, 2014

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Has fire union support become a campaign curse?

Risky endorsement

Firefighters’ political capital has taken a hit, as their salaries have become a target for taxpayer rage amid the recession. Candidates are backing away from the once coveted firefighter endorsement, fearing a voter backlash, while scrutiny of the Clark County firefighters union has soared.

Firefighters have long been the most sought after prize in local politics. Candidates of both parties fought hard for their endorsement, which came with money, volunteers in firefighter T-shirts to knock on doors, and a hard-to-beat image: candidate, flag and firefighter.

But several years of reports about firefighters’ lucrative compensation during a time of economic duress, exacerbated by a series of public relations missteps, have combined to make firefighters and their union politically toxic in some quarters, according to several political operatives.

A Democratic operative who was granted anonymity to speak freely, was blunt: “Not only are people not seeking the endorsement, they are actively avoiding it.”

Mike Sullivan, a lobbyist and political consultant, said: “It used to be, you’d seek the firefighter endorsement 100 percent of the time. Polls I’ve seen so far show that this endorsement won’t necessarily help you.”

Dan Hart, another Democratic operative, was measured: “Firefighters perform an exceptional and needed job in our community. But public employees have to look at how much they are paid — the new world of politics is different and I think firefighters have to change with it.”

Hart’s willingness to openly warn the union, which would have once been unthinkable, is instructive — firefighter political capital has been badly depleted.

Firefighters are in trouble because their salaries have become shorthand for populist anger — on the left and the right — about the economy, the Democratic operative said: “The economy is the No. 1 issue, and when people want to vent about the economy, they point to the firefighters.”

Although the true cause of the valley’s economic woes are far more related to bad mortgages and an unfettered Wall Street run amok than firefighter pay, firefighters are apparently a potent local symbol for frustrated voters.

In 2009, county firefighters averaged $181,000 in total compensation, including benefits and overtime pay; battalion chiefs averaged $285,000.

The county is paying these salaries even as the commission must cut $57 million, or 14 percent of its budget, to close a deficit. That could cost 96 firefighters their jobs.

When the number of possible lost jobs was announced, commissioners were conspicuously silent — laying off firefighters is no longer unimaginable.

Indeed, in North Las Vegas, the City Council voted to eliminate 16 firefighter positions among 204 overall layoffs.

An obvious reason: Firefighters are no longer what they once were during election season — a turn both swift and dramatic.

Susan Brager, a Clark County Commissioner up for re-election, said she has been getting angry calls and e-mails from constituents about firefighters.

When asked if she would seek the firefighters’ endorsement, Brager replied, “That’s a good question ... I need to be an independent voice. That’s in my best interest and in the best interest of my constituents.”

Asked if that meant she didn’t want the firefighters union endorsement because it might diminish that independence, she declined to elaborate.

Rusty McAllister, president of the Professional Firefighters of Nevada, complained his union has been damaged by unfair media coverage.

As he noted, some local government officials are attacking firefighter overtime pay even though those very local governments have made a policy decision that has driven up overtime.

To wit: Local governments have elected to pay lots of overtime instead of hiring more firefighters because health, benefits and training costs of new hires would be greater than the current overtime costs.

McAllister cited the opening of two new Clark County fire stations last year without the addition of new firefighters, which in turn led to more overtime. “You can stop overtime tomorrow — hire some firefighters,” he said.

McAllister noted that Democrats in the Legislature showed up for endorsement interviews and that union political donations haven’t been returned.

Still, he acknowledged firefighters have been blindsided and often slow to respond to political attacks, going back several years, though the real damage has been inflicted in the past year or so.

Scrutiny of the Clark County firefighters union — the largest in the valley — grew more intense last year when firefighters offered salary concessions to the county that officials concluded would have actually increased costs. Firefighters wound up keeping their pay raises while other unions agreed to slice or eliminate theirs.

Negotiations on a new contract between the county and the union are ongoing.

Meanwhile, firefighters have stepped into one public relations blunder after another.

As the Sun reported recently, firefighters have been doing charitable work on the job — running the MDA “Boot Drive” — which drew outrage from Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who vowed to stop the practice.

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

This served to feed a narrative ingrained in the public consciousness, that the job isn’t demanding, according to the Democratic operative: “What are they doing at the gym? At the grocery store?”

After the charity work incident, a Las Vegas firefighter wrote on a Facebook page that she wanted to “shoot” Sisolak, leading to another bad round of press.

The firefighters’ travails have important implications, both for the fall elections and the 2011 Legislature. Firefighters have traditionally been an important piston in the Democratic political engine, which has historically received most of the firefighters’ help. Their ineffectiveness will be a boon to Republicans.

In Carson City, firefighters, led by McAllister, have become known as savvy players who leverage the legislative process to their advantage at every turn. But with less electoral clout and with their public standing in tatters, legislators will be less likely to listen to firefighters’ pleas.

The union locals seem to have finally recognized the problem and are trying to clean up the public relations mess.

The Las Vegas city firefighters union hired former KVBC Channel 3 news anchor Kendall Tenney as a public relations specialist. Tenney did not return a phone call request for more information.

A full-page ad in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Wednesday told readers that the North Las Vegas union made a substantial salary concession offer to the City Council. The ad includes a black-and-white photo of a firefighter spraying water on a four-story building ablaze.

Even this effort was imperfect though, as another Democratic operative noted: “The building doesn’t look like a Nevada building to me.”

Mark Fierro, a longtime valley public relations professional who was recently hired by the North Las Vegas union, acknowledged that it isn’t a local photo.

This feeds another damaging narrative — voters rarely see smoke in the sky because most of our structures were built or retrofitted after the state passed some of the toughest fire codes in the country in the early 1980s, including effective sprinkler systems.

Still, Fierro said it was reasonable to use the photo: “It’s symbolic of what’s going on here. It puts into perspective what (firefighters) do. It’s a dangerous job,” he said.

Fierro acknowledged that firefighter deaths from actual fires are rare, but said they suffer and die from the lingering health effects of being around toxic burns: “They die very young and in a hospital bed,” he said.

Despite the recent adversity, Fierro and other firefighter allies still have plenty of remaining goodwill to work with, according to some candidates and operatives.

State Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas, who plans to run for the Las Vegas City Council in 2011, said he would accept an endorsement. He believes their image problems could disappear if local government reined in overtime.

“Police and fire jobs carry a lot greater risk than other public employees and are entitled to higher salaries,” he said.

Political consultant Ronni Council said based on her experience, she would encourage candidates to accept the endorsement. “When you knock on that door, and you tell a voter that you have the support of the firefighters and the police, that goes a long way,” she said.

But it was curious that Council felt the need to emphasize that when firefighters knock on doors for candidates, they aren’t doing it on work time. “I’ve never had a firefighter walk while on duty,” she said.

McAllister said firefighters are ready to fight back.

“There are certain people, groups, who have defined and changed the perception of who we are. I read stuff and I say, ‘That’s not me.’ ” He concluded, “How do I fix that? I’m not sure but we’re trying.”

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