Firefighters' endorsement on the minds of Democrats

PORTSMOUTH — During the 2000 New Hampshire Democratic primary, the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire supported Vice President Al Gore. In the 2004 Democratic primary, many election experts believe their support was crucial in rescuing the floundering campaign of Sen. John Kerry.

Their candidate choice for 2008, which will be made at the national level by the International Association of Fire Fighters, has yet to be decided, but all the Democrat candidates will be vying for one of the more important endorsements in the state.

A pair of local firefighters will be able to hear at least six of the Democratic presidential contenders speak at a national conference in Portsmouth beginning today — and how those candidates address a wide range of issues could help determine which candidate gets the endorsement and the organizational support behind it.

"We are known for sticking together," said David Lang, a Hampton firefighter and president of the PFFNH, which represents firefighters and paramedics. "We go into burning buildings together and we stick together politically."

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina will all speak at the Federation of State and Provencial Professional Fire Fighters convention. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois will call in from a campaign stop in Missouri.

Lang and William McQuillen, a Portsmouth firefighter and PFFNH secretary-treasurer, will be among 70 firefighter union leaders from across the country. The delegates include those from early caucus and primary states such as Iowa, Florida and California.

Lang, whose organization represents 39 locals and more than 2,100 active and retired members, told the Herald that the discussions being held in fire houses across the state are the same as those across the nation — affordable health care, economic and job security, dedication to first responder equipment and training and a foreign policy that doesn't drain important resources from the everyday requirements on the home front.

"We support the troops and have members who have been called up for active duty," Lang said. "We want to know what our foreign policy is going to look like because it does impact what happens at home. We are strong on the military, but at what cost?"

A longtime primary watcher said Democrat candidates know the importance of the support in states like New Hampshire.

"For Democrats it's doubly important," said Dean Spiliotes, the research director at the N.H. Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. "They (provide) political and organizational support. There's added salience because (the firefighters) are first responders and there is general concern (among voters) about homeland security."