By Adam Mintzer and Haley Hinkle
WASHINGTON — Presidential hopefuls vied for the support of firefighters on Tuesday, pitching their campaign messages about middle class business values and the need for “grassroots political movement” to union members.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Jim Webb, Marco Rubio and other high-profile contenders pushed potential campaign talking points to the International Association of Fire Fighters, the powerful union representing 300,000 members.
Sanders, the independent from Vermont, called on firefighters and first responders to lead a “grassroots political movement” to take the country back from wealthy political influencers like Charles and David Koch, the brothers who reportedly spent close to $300 million in last year’s midterm elections and more than $400 million in the 2012 election.
Sanders called out the “billionaire class” that has increasingly influenced elections after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which opened the door to independent spending in 2010.
“They want more and more. There is no end to what they want,” Sanders said.
Others also blasted “big business.”
Former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia emphasized the need for economic fairness in Washington. “A lot of political leaders will give lip service to this concept,” he said.
The recent Department of Homeland Security funding debate also got some attention.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called out other speakers for announcing their support for firefighters while also attacking DHS. King also suggested lawmakers are not providing firefighters with adequate funding.
King asked if firefighters would be able to do their jobs “without the equipment, without the funding, without the training?”
Several of the speeches were enthusiastically received, but when the contenders weaved in their own messages without connecting it to firefighters, the crowd often remained silent.
Conservative talking points from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on the health care law and the Internal Revenue Service fell flat.
“We have more words in the IRS code than we have in the Bible,” Cruz said to a hushed audience.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., managed to connect with the crowd by mentioning pensions directly. “When we all retire… We’re gonna wipe Social Security and Medicare out.”
Union members responded strongly to former Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who favors strong unions, as well as government-funded pensions and providing firefighters with adequate funding.
“All the Republican speakers you heard from today are opposed to collective bargaining,” said O’Malley, receiving some of the day’s loudest applause. “The American Dream will never die on our watch, because we choose to fight and we intend to win.”
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who is considering a run for the presidency in 2016, missed the conference. He sent a brief welcome video instead.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumptive presidential frontrunner for the Democrats, did not attend. Clinton is in New York to deliver remarks at a United Nations conference.
The two-day forum in Washington has been an opportunity for firefighters to better understand the views of presidential hopefuls, said Harold Schaitberger, the union’s general president.
The union has endorsed candidates in past elections based on “fire service, employment and labor issues that directly affect our members,” according to its website.
The union endorsed President Barack Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 general elections.
“This is the beginning of our process,” Schaitberger said.