Ten years ago on September 11, first responders were our national heroes. They rushed into New York’s burning towers and the nation’s nerve center for military defense. They saved lives without concern for their own and they suffered terrible losses. They brought order to chaos and let us know that someone had our backs, even in the worst of times.
Since that horrific day, many of our country’s first responders have served with the National Guard in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have protected us against domestic attacks from foreign and homegrown terrorists. They continuously put their lives on the line for natural disasters, and on a daily basis, they face flames and bullets, arrest thugs, rescue fire victims, save lives in ambulances, find lost children and keep us safe.
More than ever after 9/11, support from police and fire was sought by every politician even thinking of running for office. No more. Not now. Our first responders are being blamed by extremists for everything from the political mismanagement of cities to budget deficits nationwide. It doesn’t matter that police and fire protected us during good times, paying into their own pensions, keeping cities and states flush with these retirement funds. It’s of no consequence that since the recession, they’ve made concession after concession in the spirit of shared sacrifice. These facts have all been lost amid threats to their very existence. Who needs community police and fire when we can privatize and outsource, when we can make numbers look better on a balance sheet and reward political contributors? Emergency dispatchers from India and mercenaries from Blackwater could do the same job more efficiently and surely for less.
With a decade of political consulting working for candidates of all stripes, I have always supported police and fire, sought their endorsements and helped them save their departments and elect city leaders who valued public safety. I view these first responders as our nation’s soldiers who sign up for a life of service on the home front. Not one police officer or firefighter I’ve ever known has chosen the profession for pay or pension. Most turned to these careers at early ages because they thought they could make a positive difference. Unlike a large percentage of local politicians, first responders are not part-timers; they don’t start their careers without highly specialized training and they know they face life-and-death decisions every day.
In my polling, I find that police and fire are always more trusted than politicians. We do our candidates and our country a disservice if we denigrate first responders – one of the few things we can count on. Yes, they are members of organized labor but they don’t go on strike and refuse to respond to emergencies. Collective bargaining is a hard-won right in this democracy. Organized labor and the GI Bill gave birth to the middle class. Labor’s fate closely mirrors the rise and fall of the middle class and the losses of the middle class mirror the current economic downturn. It makes no sense for politicians to attack police and fire organizations because they are the ones who keep us safe and help our economy move forward.
To demonize police and fire is to set in motion a self-fulfilling, cataclysmic chain of events that can cause a breakdown in public order, in public trust. When the first responder’s job is not respected, it won’t attract the brightest and the best and then services will deteriorate and the public will live in distrust and fear, as they often do in third-world countries. When respect for law and order is eroded, children grow up thinking hoodlums are heroes, criminals become more emboldened and police deaths go up – reflected in a 47% increase in this year alone.
We cannot continue to put private endeavors on some pedestal above public service. The private sector has had its own problems over the past decade and answers to shareholders, not the public. Without public servants, our nation’s communities would enjoy no quality of life and our country would not be able to protect its borders and the health and well-being of its citizens. Only if business and government work together for the good of the nation can we put people to work, save our cities, rebuild our infrastructure, educate our kids and restore public confidence.
In these tough times, I think it’s incumbent on consultants to help our clients pull their communities and our nation together, to call upon the spirit of 9/11 battling not an outside enemy, but economic hardship and the extremists within our own citizenry. Our mission should be to dial down the rhetoric and help our candidates come up with actual proposals for job creation and investment in our communities so we can push past recovery and grow our economy. Certainly, we have a responsibility to make our clients stand out as the right choice but we can do it through their personal stories, past accomplishments and real platforms. We can get the public’s attention in innovative ways. We can make comparisons with our opponents on their record, foregoing personal attacks, and we can inject some much needed humor into the whole process.
Americans blame the parties, the media and the current climate for the sometimes sorry state of politicking but the truth is that as consultants, we have an important role to play in the local and national discourse. We can advise our clients on the importance of support for police and fire. We can point out to them that the only oaths they should be taking are oaths to serve the Constitution and their constituents and not just the loudest or the richest among them, but those working every day to protect our way of life.
As a country, our recovery and our future success depends first and foremost on feeling safe, on believing that our first line of defense is solid, that there are highly trained police and firefighters in our communities who will protect us and our quality of life. We need only look to Iraq and Afghanistan to know that nation building can’t be done in unsafe environments.
Facing these uncertain times, when all our major institutions have failed us, we need to be able to count on something, to have heroes in our midst, to have someone to call when we’re in trouble whose only question to us will be, not our party, union affiliation or financial standing, but what is the nature of our emergency?
Like the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces, our police and fire are better educated and trained and more culturally diverse than ever before in our history. They are called to advise and assist in emergencies around the world. They deserve our respect and their endorsement should be a badge of honor prized by any candidate running for office.
Jim Freeman, Political Consultant