Are First Responders the Bad Guys Now?

Are First Responders the Bad Guys Now?
One strategist on why political consultants need to be making a better case for police and fire.

Ten years ago on September 11, first responders were our national heroes. They rushed into New York’s burning towers and the nation’s nerve center for military defense. They saved lives without concern for their own and they suffered terrible losses.  

Since that horrific day, many of our country’s first responders have served with the National Guard in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have protected us against domestic attacks from foreign and homegrown terrorists. They continuously put their lives on the line for natural disasters, and on a daily basis, they face flames and bullets, arrest thugs, rescue fire victims, save lives in ambulances, find lost children and keep us safe.

More than ever after 9/11, support from police and fire was sought by every politician even thinking of running for office. No more. Not now.

Our first responders are being blamed by political extremists for everything from the mismanagement of cities to budget deficits nationwide. It doesn’t matter that police and fire protected us during good times, paying into their own pensions, keeping cities and states flush with these retirement funds. It’s of no consequence that since the recession, they’ve made concession after concession in the spirit of shared sacrifice.

These facts have all been lost amid threats to their very existence. Who needs community police and fire when we can privatize and outsource, when we can make numbers look better on a balance sheet and reward political contributors? Emergency dispatchers from India and mercenaries from Blackwater could do the same job more efficiently and surely for less.    

With a decade of political consulting working for candidates of all stripes, I have always supported police and fire, sought their endorsements and helped them save their departments and elect city leaders who valued public safety. Unlike a large percentage of local politicians, first responders are not part-timers; they don’t start their careers without highly specialized training and they know they face life-and-death decisions every day.

Now, as battles over organized labor rage in many states across the country, too many candidates simply aren’t seeking police and fire endorsements. And what’s worse, their consultants aren’t encouraging them to do so. Candidates who leave endorsements that confer trust and credibility on the table are foolish. And consultants who let them need a refresher on what backing from police and fire can bring to a campaign.

Endorsements from police and fire transfer the community’s trust of their organizations to candidates. In nationwide polling, I find that police and fire are always more trusted than politicians. What’s more, when candidates seek these endorsements, they’re telling voters that they recognize the electorate’s top priority, which is invariably public safety.

When candidates have police and fire on their side, they also have powerful allies—PACs that set aside funds for independent expenditures and organizations who will get their families and friends involved in campaigns. Police and fire hit the streets; they walk for candidates – especially firefighters – providing the candidate with an army of active, respected supporters. There is no consultant in the world who can do more for a politician than firefighters knocking on doors. 

Police and fire endorsements give candidates credibility and often inoculate them from attack ads. These organizations do their homework and their screening process helps them endorse candidates who are deserving of their support. Opponents are less likely to impugn the character of candidates endorsed by police and fire.

Getting the support of police and fire is good for business. Before entrepreneurs open their doors, before employees get hired, before shoppers and tourists come calling, there must be assurances of public safety. Candidates who want business support need police and fire.

Having the endorsement of police and fire should be viewed as a candidate’s support for the well being of constituents, especially our most vulnerable -- seniors and children. And seniors and parents vote. They have high expectations of their local police and fire and want to have the same expectations of their elected officials. They know police and fire will risk their lives for them. They would like to think candidates would at least risk political purity tests and big-donor pressure to take care of their communities.

In these tough times, I think it’s incumbent on consultants to help our clients pull their communities and our nation together. Our mission should be to help our candidates benefit from police and fire endorsements. Ensuring a working democracy starts with a sense that we live in a safe nation and pushing toward recovery requires a belief in our strength as a people to pull together to save our way of life.

Facing the uncertain days ahead, after all our major institutions have failed us, we need to be able to count on something, to have heroes in our midst, to have someone to call when we’re in trouble whose only question to us will be, not our party, union affiliation or financial standing, but what is the nature of our emergency?

Like the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces, our police and fire are better educated and trained and more culturally diverse than ever before in our history. They are called to advise and assist in emergencies around the world. They deserve our respect and their endorsement should be a badge of honor prized by any candidate running for office.

Jim Freeman heads the California-based firm Freeman Public Affairs, which has won national and international awards for its work representing local, county and state candidates, labor organizations, municipalities, school districts and public interest groups. Freeman’s clients include police officers, firefighters and teachers.

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