Why Was Jeb Bush the Only Republican to Receive Money from a Firefighters' Union?

The firefighters' union's PAC gave to Jeb and multiple Democratic candidates who had good relations with firefighters in the past.

National Journal

While a major union for firefighters has donated largely to Democratic presidential candidates, there is one other candidate who they are open to looking at: Jeb Bush.

Recent Federal Election Commission documents showed a large chunk of the International Association of Fire Fighters' political giving went to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supportive of Hillary Clinton, clocking in at $50,000, while also giving $5,000 to Hillary for America.

In addition, the International Association of Fire Fighters gave $5,000 to Born Fighting PAC, which is supportive of former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and $5,000 to Webb's exploratory committee. IAFF president Harold Schaitberger also said the union gave to Sen. Bernie Sanders's Senate campaign and his leadership PAC as well as to former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. In 2014, IAFF FIREPAC gave the O'Malley-affiliated O'Say Can You See PAC $5,000.

The contributions to Clinton, Webb (who touts his union membership), the pro-labor Sanders, and O'Malley, a progressive former governor who supports collective-bargaining rights, are not all that surprising. But IAFF general president Harold Schaitberger said along with the four Democratic candidates, IAFF had donated to Bush, and an FEC midyear report shows that IAFF FIREPAC had made a $5,000 contribution to Bush's Right to Rise PAC.

"It was just our way with different candidates to say, 'We'll give you a little help to explore this something you want to do,'" Schaitberger told National Journal, but he added that the donations were not so much as an endorsement of any one person as much as it was helping candidates who had a history with the union.

Some of Bush's Republican opponents have had rocky relationships with labor unions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker rose to national prominence after stripping public-employee unions of most collective-bargaining rights in his state, but he exempted police and firefighters' unions. Ohio Gov. John Kasich tried to limit collective-bargaining rights for Ohio's public employees, but the measure was repealed by referendum and Kasich backed off.

But during his tenure as governor, Bush was endorsed by the Florida Professional Firefighters in both of his elections. The union also endorsed his brother's candidacy for president in 2000, though it backed then-Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

"While he was governor of Florida, he had a reasonably supportive relationship with our union in Florida but also our profession," Schaitberger said of Jeb.

Schaitberger said Bush helped firefighters when he made whole their retirement-plan calculation after they had their pension plans reduced under a previous administration. Another bright spot of Bush's record, Schaitberger said, was that while Bush significantly cut down the size of state government and did some privatization, he resisted calls to privatize firefighting in small- and medium-sized communities.

"He took the position that fire protection was an essential government function," he said. Bush further endeared himself to the firefighters' union when he appointed Charles Kossuth, a now-deceased former vice president of the Florida Professional Firefighters, as a commissioner to the state's Public Employees' Rights Commission.

"That was the basis for having a working relationship with them," Schaitberger said.

The IAFF has a record of being relatively bipartisan as well. Earlier this year, the union held its annual legislative conference and presidential forum, which not only featured speeches from O'Malley, Webb, Sanders, and Bush, but also Sen. Marco Rubio, former New York Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Sen. Ted Cruz, who received a less-than-welcoming reception for his speech.

But it is not likely that many Republican presidential candidates will be courting union votes. Last month, the American Federation of Teachers endorsed Clinton while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the national teachers' union deserved a "punch in the face." That same month, when the AFL-CIO's executive council heard from presidential candidates, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was the only Republican candidate to meet with the organization.

Schaitberger said the IAFF is going through the process for making an endorsement, but he said they will not focus on social issues like abortion rights, gun control, or same-sex marriage.

"These are all personal individual issues," Schaitberger said. "Our issues and baskets are their financial future," in reference to firefighters.