Maryland's statewide firefighters union endorsed Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's bid for governor yesterday, overlooking his Democratic rival's prominence on homeland security in favor of Duncan's strong support for local unions.
Members of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maryland, which represents 6,000 firefighters and paramedics, voted at a meeting this week to support Duncan over Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
"There was a lot of debate, a lot of pros and cons about all the candidates, but in the end we recognize Doug's leadership," said LeRoy A. Wilkison, president of the Maryland group. "He is a firefighters' executive, and he will be a firefighters' governor."
At a news conference in Columbia, Duncan also announced that he has been endorsed by the Baltimore Retired Firefighters and Fire Officers Association. Combined, Duncan said the two endorsements are a testament to his strong record on labor issues and his long-standing commitment to public safety.
"Far too often, their hard work is forgotten at budget time by officials interested more in the quick fix than in protecting those who protect us," Duncan said. "That has never been my style."
The Baltimore City Fire Fighters Association, Local 734, plans to support O'Malley, who leads in early statewide polls, leaders said. The Baltimore County Fire Fighters Association, Local 934, has yet to decide, but the group's president, Michael Day, said he was unhappy with the state union's decision.
"This endorsement is like a paper tiger with no teeth or claws," Day said.
Although their influence has waned over the decades, unions still provide campaigns valuable support, including volunteers for phone banks and door-to-door canvassing.
Last week, Duncan was endorsed by three locals of the Service Employees International Union, with 20,000 members in Maryland. O'Malley has been endorsed by another local of SEIU, with about 7,500 members, as well as by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters, the Mid-Atlantic Board of UNITE HERE and the Western Maryland Building and Construction Trades Council.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, firefighters, police officers and other first responders have gained political cachet. In last year's presidential election, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) frequently boasted of his endorsement by the International Association of Fire Fighters.
As Kerry did in his race against President Bush, Duncan is likely to use the firefighters' endorsement to try to diminish O'Malley's attempts to position himself as a leader on homeland security.
As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Homeland Security Task Force, O'Malley has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration's effort to prepare fire departments and other agencies for terrorist attacks.
"Some politicians seemed to have learned only after 9/11 that firefighters and rescue workers are on the front lines in the fight to protect our homeland," Duncan said yesterday. "But giving speeches and smiling for the camera doesn't get the job done when it comes to supporting our first responders."
Jonathan Epstein, O'Malley's campaign manager, declined to comment.
Wilkison said the statewide firefighters union voted to endorse Duncan because he has a strong record of supporting firefighters in Montgomery. Also, he has lunched with the leaders of every county's firefighter union in the past year and was the only candidate for governor to speak at the statewide firefighters' union convention in Ocean City.
This year, Duncan pushed a three-year contract through the Montgomery County Council that will cost an added $40 million over three years and allow firefighters to retire after 20 years instead of 25. It also included pay increases of about 5 percent a year, on top of previously agreed-upon 3.5 percent step increases.
"He's been there for us, and we will be there for him," said John J. Sparks, president of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters, Local 1664.
But County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, said the county executive "has made labor agreements that are irresponsible for his own political benefit."
As mayor, O'Malley has had a more tenuous relationship with organized labor, but in recent years it has improved, said Richard G. Schluderberg, president of the city firefighters union. Schluderberg noted that O'Malley has been faced with leaner budgets in Baltimore.