PORTSMOUTH — Presidential hopeful Bill Richardson asked members of the nationís largest firefightersí union Thursday to compare his labor record to his Democratic rivalsí rhetoric.
"Iíve done it. I donít just say Iím for it: Iíve done it," the New Mexico governor said at an International Association of Fire Fighters convention.
"There are a lot of candidates who will come up and take a picture with you and make you promises, but when itís time to deliver, maybe theyíll be with you. ... Iíll always be with you," he said.
In 2003, Richardson signed a law requiring the state, cities, counties and school boards to negotiate with unionized workers. The law replaced one that had lapsed several years earlier.
"Those were dark, dark ages for us," said Emily Kane, president of the New Mexico Firefighters Association. After Richardson signed the law, wages for firefighters increased "to the point people are fighting to get into the departments," she said.
"When he takes office in 2009, my loss is going to be your gain," she told her peers from around the country.
Richardson said he also supported unions during his 15 years in Congress and as Energy Secretary, when he proposed a health care compensation package for union workers who built nuclear weapons. He said that as president, he would help firefighters by ensuring they have the equipment, training and protected pensions they deserve, and he also would appoint someone with a labor background as labor secretary.
"I want you to look in my eye: I will fight for you," he said.
Greg Markley, of the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters, pushed Richardson to focus on preventive health care, saying for many poor families, firefighters are health care providers in their role as emergency medical technicians.
Firefighters are concerned about their own health care benefits, particularly for retirees, he said, "but from a working perspective, we become very disheartened when we see individuals without health care," he said. "Thereís no excuse for it."
He said Richardson displayed many of the qualities heís looking for in a president.
"Heís very down to earth. He speaks in lay terms. He has experience," he said. "Many candidates have experience, but sometimes it gets lost in translation."
In March, Richardson was one of 11 candidates who spoke to more than 1,000 of the unionís members in Washington. The New Hampshire convention involved only a few dozen union leaders from around the country, allowing them to evaluate candidates more informally.
Though candidates from both parties were invited to the earlier convention, this weekís event featured only candidates who sought another chance to ask for the groupís endorsement. Sens. Chris Dodd, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden and former Sen. John Edwards were participating Friday. Sen. Barack Obama planned to speak to the group by phone.