Chief Leader - April 19, 2017by BOB HENNELLY
Uniformed Firefighters Association Vice-President Gerard Fitzgerald has prevailed over retired Firefighter Kenny Specht in the run-off for the union’s presidency, garnering 3,230 votes to his opponent’s 2,446.
Close to 400 fewer ballots were cast compared to the initial election in March.
In the face-off for Recording Secretary, Fitgerald running mate Robert Eustace defeated Firefighter Douglas Carroll 3,466 to 2,170. The UFA Board 2017 slate of officers posted a clean sweep of all the union’s leadership posts.
‘He’ll Work Tirelessly’
“Congratulations to Gerard Fitzgerald and Robert Eustace on becoming the next UFA president and recording secretary,” departing UFA President James Slevin said in a statement. “I am confident that Gerard will be a strong and effective president and continue to work tirelessly on behalf of firefighters across our city.”
Mr. Fitzgerald and the rest of the recently-elected officials will start their terms May 1. Mr. Slevin will leave the UFA after 15 years on its board to devote full time to his post as first district vice president at the International Association of Fire Fighters, which covers both New York and New Jersey.
“On behalf of our entire membership, I want to thank Jim Slevin for his work over the last six months as interim UFA President and wish him the best with the International. New York City’s loss is the world’s gain,” Mr. Fitzgerald said.
In a phone interview, Mr. Specht said he wished the “union the best” and he felt the results demonstrated “incumbency has advantages.” He said he “loved” the campaign experience of going firehouse to firehouse to make his case. “And when you think of the fact that I have been retired from the job for eight years, well, it’s just really gratifying to see I had that much support,” he said.
Referendum on Cassidy?
At its core, the battle between the two slates boiled down to competing narratives about how the UFA fared under the 14-year reign of Steve Cassidy, who won an unprecedented five terms as president of a union long known for fractiousness. His decision last fall to take the top spot at the newly created Fire Pension Fund was a controversial move that resulted in the UFA executive board ordering his departure several weeks earlier than he had planned.
Mr. Specht’s campaign attempted to tap into the belief that the UFA’s leadership had been more concerned about its own advancement than the rank and file. His campaign material highlighted his lobbying for the Zadroga Act and pledged “better advocacy, more transparency,” and a leadership that would be more “accountable to members.” The insurgent-slate flyers contended that Firefighters had lost ground and that “the job is unrecognizable from what it was before September 11” with a force that was “understaffed, overworked and underappreciated.” He maintained that Firefighters had seen both their benefits and working conditions deteriorate.
The web page for Mr. Fitzgerald’s UFA Board 2017 slate painted an upbeat picture, highlighting its role in delivering “the highest-paying contract of any municipal union without sacrificing the younger generation,” securing “the restoration of the 5th man to 20 engine companies by 2019,” and managing members’ benefit and annuity funds in a way that makes “them the envy of all municipal unions.”
Made Bigotry an Issue
But it also capitalized on the bigoted social-media posts by Mr. Specht. A campaign flyer featured a partial reprint of a New York Post story headlined “Ex FDNYer Running For Union Boss Under Fire For Bigoted Posts” that described Mr. Specht’s social-media posts as being rife with “racist, sexist and anti-Semitic rants.”
“The president of the UFA should be in the news with positive stories working for you, not as an embarrassing headline story,” the Fitzgerald flyer stated.
In a phone interview with this newspaper right after the Post story broke, Mr. Specht vehemently denied he was anti-Semitic or a racist but issued an apology for the Facebook rants, which included an ugly attack on an Orthodox Jewish couple who lost seven children in a horrific fire in March of 2015.
That Midwood Brooklyn blaze set off by an overheated hotplate the family used on the Jewish Sabbath left the mother with third-degree burns over 45 percent of her body and only one surviving child. Several hours after the fire, Mr. Specht wrote on his Facebook page “7 kids dead and mom and dad alive? Dirty bastards.”
‘Chose My Words Poorly’
“When it came to the Facebook post, I chose my words poorly and that is a fact. I wrote a few years ago from an emotional standpoint about a multiple fatal fire that chilled me to the bone when I heard about it,” Mr. Specht said in a phone interview. “I did a terrible job conveying my anger and sadness when I wrote what I wrote about that event.”
The UFA at the time the Post story came out issued a condemnation of Mr. Specht’s online comments. “The commentary that appears to be attributed to a retired firefighter is disturbing and shameful,” a spokesperson for the union said. “We condemn this language and by no means do these viewpoints represent the culture and mindset of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.”
Mr. Specht had also written several racially-charged posts, including, “I’l see your black power sign and raise you one proud white power unapologetic male!”
The decision by the incumbent UFA Board 2017 slate to raise Mr. Specht’s anti-Semitic and racist postings as a campaign issue prompted supporters of Mr. Specht to use a union meeting to distribute hundreds of green t-shirts that read “True Brotherhood Doesn’t Smear Brothers.”
Major Political Liability
Firefighter Regina Wilson, president of the Vulcan Society, the department’s fraternal organization for African-Americans, which includes several hundred members, confirmed that the only candidate among four seeking the UFA top job not to make a direct appeal for Vulcan Society votes was Mr. Specht. In a text response to a query from this newspaper, Mr. Specht said he had been invited to the FDNY Emerald Society and the Hispanic Society and “accepted the invites and spoke at both.”
During the run-off campaign, former Vulcan Society President and Fire Capt. Paul Washington warned that a victory for Mr. Specht would have significant real-world political consequences for the UFA. “To have someone who has made such vile anti-Semitic and racist comments to be your representative when you are sitting down with politicians, many of whom are black or Jewish, or beholden to black and Jewish political power in the city, that is just a recipe for disaster for the UFA,” he said.
The other winners from Mr. Fitzgerald’s slate, none of whom needed runoffs after the March election, were LeRoy McGinnis as vice president, Treasurer Eddie Brown, Health & Safety Officer/Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Schreiber, and Brooklyn Delegate John G. Kelly.