Two weeks ago debate erupted over the appropriateness of President Bush’s first 2004 campaign ads, which featured firefighters carrying a flag-draped coffin from the ruins of the World Trade Center. Harold Schaitberger found himself among the many activists quoted on the front page of major newspapers lambasting President Bush for “disgraceful” advertisements. Papers (correctly) described Schaitberger as the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, noting that the union had endorsed John Kerry.

As is usually the case, two pieces this weekend tell us, there is more to Schaitberger’s story than can be found in that mini-bio.

U.S. News & World Report’s Alex Markels investigates Schaitberger and the growing influence of the 263,000-member union in this week’s issue. And David Postman of the Seattle Times joined Markels Saturday, writing that the “union’s ties to Kerry have positioned it as a largely Democratic political power that belies its relatively small size.”

Through Markels’ piece we learn that the International Association of Fire Fighters “was the first and only major union to stick its collective neck out and endorse Kerry last September.” Endorsing candidates early is part of Schaitberger’s recipe for success; he was an early Gore supporter in 2000. The Kerry endorsement came after a survey of union members, Postman tells us, that looked at the candidate’s stances on positions most important to the firefighters.

Kerry, according to Markel, has benefited immensely from the firefighters’ backing. Because of “their presence in almost every neighborhood [and] an enhanced public respect since the 9/11 attacks,” they have been able to deliver on such campaign tactics as a “Drive With Five” incentive program that urged members to bring at least five non-members with them to Iowa caucus sites, a state in which Kerry outperformed expectations.

But, as Markel points out, Schaitberger has benefited from the relationship too, as he was recently named vice chairman of a new AFL-CIO campaign strategy committee. “AFL-CIO President John Sweeny joked that Schaitberger will be the only guy with keys to the executive bathroom at the White House.”

Postman adds this note: Despite the union’s unequivocal support of Kerry, in 2002 it backed five incumbent Republican U.S. senators. Even more startling, “more of the members identify themselves as Republicans than Democrats or independents.”

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.