It's been nearly six years since the 9/11 attacks and six months since former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has decided to grace the race for the Republican presidential nomination with his presence. Now unions representing New York's Bravest are popping a tough question.
What on Earth did this man do on 9/11 and in its aftermath that was so breathtakingly heroic?
More accurately, they are campaigning to expose how Giuliani short-changed and endangered the city's 11,000 firefighters over the course of two terms, and then went on to exploit their heroism during and after the 9/11 attacks for his own political advantage.
Martin Steadman, a spokesperson for New York's Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA), explains that the New York City Fire Department issued a report on communication devices after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing showed that the department's hand-held radio devices were wholly inadequate.
The report, which landed on Mayor Giuliani's desk his first day in office, explained that department radios didn't work between floors in high-rises or in deep subway tunnels.
The city eventually bought several thousand new Motorolas in 1999, according to the New York Times. Chaos soon ensued, says Steadman, after firefighters complained that there were strong echoes and voice delays on the new radios. But as the 9/11 Commission report shows, when the FDNY responded to the 9/11 attacks, it was using the analog radios that "performed poorly" during the 1993 bombings.
As a result, more than 200 firefighters in the north tower did not receive an evacuation call on their radios.
"We're saying he had eight years to solve that problem," says Steadman.
The International Association of Firefighters, with which the UFOA is affiliated, is in the process of producing a video outlining its critique of Giuliani, hoping to inform the nation's firefighters of Giuliani's record when he steps up his presidential campaigning.
Steve Cassidy, the president of the city's Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA), which represents firefighters below the rank of lieutenant, also vowed to the New York Post that his union would wage a vigorous counter-campaign against Giuliani in the '08 election.
Cassidy's problem revolves around the fact that firefighters working at the World Trade Center did not receive respirators as they should have according to state labor law, leaving them exposed to serious and sometimes fatal pathogens. In late June, Cassidy called on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to question Giuliani on the issue.
Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman testified before the subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), June 25. Worker's rights advocates had demanded she be held accountable for responders, like firefighters, who are suffering from illness and injuries as a result of their worker. Rep. Nadler has so far made no plans to ask Giuliani to testify.
"The 9/11 Commission gave Rudy Giuliani a pass, not asking him tough questions about what he knew, when he knew it or why he failed to provide respirators to firefighters and other first responders," reads Cassidy's public statement.
So far Giuliani appears publicly unfazed by the firefighters' charges. Steve Malanga, a senior scholar at the right-wing Manhattan Institute and a critic of public sector unions, scoffs at the firefighters' political agenda.
"It's ludicrous for them to believe that a disagreement over a technical issue like respirators is going make an impact on Giuliani's presidential run," Malanga says. "Voters just don't focus on those types of micro issues. It's not going to make any political difference for Giuliani."
But the firefighters believe they have real political muscle to flex, and their crusade to counteract Giuliani's heroic image stems from genuine grievances about his eight years of governance. There's a good chance the public will pay attention. For many Americans, 9/11 proved that firefighters and other emergency responders risk their lives every day on the job and as result sympathize with their losses. After the attacks, political cartoonist Mike Luckovich published a cartoon depicting firefighters and police officers radioing to their officers that they had "reached the top," as they approached the gates of Heaven.
In addition, New York firefighters are anything but leftists looking to pick an ideological fight. The UFA endorsed George W. Bush in the last election. There is a strong military tradition within the department, and within the unions as well. At this year's department medal ceremony at City Hall, when one winner's family received his award because he was serving in Iraq with the Marines, the thousands of firefighters and their families rose to applaud.
Vocal opposition from the true heroes of 9/11 would be a politically heavy blow to a candidate who hopes to use his 9/11 legacy to win over voters of all partisan stripes.
Of course, there are firefighters who feel Giuliani did all he could to serve the department, that no one is perfect, and that no grudges should be held. But John Finucane, the founder of Advocates for a 9/11 Fallen Heroes Memorial and a retired fire lieutenant, said many firefighters hold a particular grudge against Giuliani for speeding up the cleaning process at Ground Zero in such a way that was disrespectful to the bodies of the dead responders. It is a debatable point, but Giuliani's action nonetheless left a bad taste in firefighters' mouths.
Moreover, Finucane claims that firefighters are aware that although Giuliani often publicly said he appreciated their work and stood by their fellow department members on the rubble that once made up the twin towers, he had also denied firefighters raises they thought they were entitled to and was excessively thrifty when making resources available for the department.
"Words are very easy to say, but it's the tangible things that count," Finucane says. "What has he done for the firemen? He's no friend of the firemen."