UFA Backs Thompson and Whacks Scoppetta

Chief Leader - September 22, 2009

by ARI PAUL

Union, Candidate Cite ‘Deutsche'

The Uniformed Firefighters Association endorsement Sept. 16 of William C. Thompson Jr. in the Mayor's race may have been a show of support for the City Comptroller's uphill campaign against incumbent Mayor Bloomberg, but the announcement the day after he won the Democratic primary turned into an indictment of one man: Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta.

The August 2007 fire at the Deutsche Bank building killing two Firefighters was the "straw that broke the camel's back," Mr. Cassidy said during the announcement at the union's east side Manhattan headquarters. The UFA leader cited several incidents in which he claimed the Commissioner responded, "It's not my fault."

Cassidy's Case

First there was the Black Sunday fire of January 2005, where two firefighters died after jumping from a four-story building. They did not have safety ropes because the Fire Department stopped issuing them in 2000 under Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. When Firefighters fell off FDNY trucks due to a door problem, Mr. Cassidy said, Mr. Scoppetta absolved himself of responsibility even though a memo surfaced showing that agency leaders knew of the deficiencies. And although the Manhattan District Attorney's Office concluded that the FDNY did not inspect the Deutsche Bank site for more than a year before the site even though it was mandated to do so every 15 days, the Commissioner avoided blame, and issued reprimands to seven officers.

"That's the Nick Scoppetta way," Mr. Cassidy said. "It's amazing he hasn't been fired."

Mr. Cassidy also took aim at other issues in the FDNY. When one reporter asked about the recent Federal court ruling that two written Firefighter exams had a disparate impact on minority candidates, the union leader scorched the Commissioner for an inability to better integrate the firefighters ranks. While the FDNY boasts that minority recruitment is up, Mr. Cassidy said that diversity has not been achieved and scoffed at the recruitment effort, saying that the department was setting up informational tables at Department of Motor Vehicle locations and McDonald's franchises.

He believed that the FDNY has continually ignored the union's suggestion that officials hold the Firefighter exam more often—which Mr. Thompson echoed—and that it focus on recruiting from the military and competitive athletic programs at city high schools, a strategy he said would attract a diverse crowd of candidates who were in the top tier of physical capabilities.

Mr. Cassidy also dismissed the "good news" from the FDNY emerging that day that the average fire response time was 13 seconds faster than last year. He repeated his criticism that the FDNY stops the clock for response times when one unit has arrived at the fire scene, rather than when a hose line is established.

Addition By Subtraction

The clear message from the UFA: Mr. Scoppetta had to go. Therefore, the endorsement went to Mr. Bloomberg's Democratic competitor.

While Mr. Thompson said he didn't know whom he would appoint as Fire Commissioner and Mr. Cassidy did not publicly offer recommendations, Mr. Thompson said he wanted "someone who listens" and both men said they wanted a Commissioner who knew about the day-to-day life of the Fire Department's front-line responders. Mr. Scoppetta had no background in firefighting prior to being appointed Commissioner by Mr. Bloomberg.

This isn't to say the UFA spared the Mayor's record when it came to the FDNY. Mr. Cassidy argued that in the last round of budget negotiations Mr. Bloomberg fought to close 16 fire companies, but withheld the release of which companies would be on the chopping block because of the election.

"He didn't think it was any of your business," he said. "He didn't have enough respect for the citizens to say ‘I'm going to close your firehouse.'"

‘Haven't Gotten Fair Shake'

Despite negotiating contracts with the Bloomberg administration that UFA members handily ratified, Mr. Cassidy believed that the Mayor's legacy in the FDNY has been a poor one.

"Firefighters haven't gotten a fair shake in New York City," he said.

Mr. Thompson, standing with the members of the union's executive board and 50 rank-and-file Firefighters, vowed not to shutter fire companies in order to close budget gaps if elected and asserted that the blame for the Deutsche Bank building fatalities rested on Mr. Bloomberg.

"I think the Mayor acted miserably," Mr. Thompson said. "They dropped the ball."

Fifty percent of the union's members live in the five boroughs, Mr. Cassidy said, noting that the UFA would mobilize them in the campaign.

Veteran political consultant George Arzt said, however, that the UFA's endorsement would have a negligible benefit for the Thompson campaign. "The UFA is always at war with the administration—it doesn't matter if it's this Mayor or previous Mayors," he said in a phone interview. "I don't think that they bring enough votes to matter in a general election. I think that the UFA has always been a volatile union and their volatility has led to less of an impact on local politics."

Police Unions Back Mayor

It is also unlikely the UFA's endorsement would indicate more to come in terms of support for Mr. Thompson from other uniformed unions.

Unions representing NYPD Detectives, Lieutenants and Captains endorsed Mr. Bloomberg Sept. 21, with Mr. Thompson's criticism of the Detectives in the Sean Bell case believed to be a factor, and the Sergeants Benevolent Association had earlier given the Mayor its nod.

The Uniformed Fire Officers Association, while having fought the administration on several issues including proposed firehouse closings, has had a much better relationship with Mr. Bloomberg than the UFA. It backed his controversial proposal to extend term limits without a referendum so he could seek a third term; the Mayor has also officiated at the union's annual induction of its executive board.

Mr. Thompson does, however, have the endorsements of District Council 37 and Transport Workers Union Local 100.

May Not Hurt Mayor Much

Douglas Muzzio, a Professor of Public Affairs at Baruch College, believed that the UFA endorsement wouldn't necessarily hurt Mr. Bloomberg, especially if other uniformed unions did not coalesce behind the challenger, but could still help the Comptroller.

"Dissatisfaction [by] that union with Scoppetta and the closing of firehouses, there's a matrix of issues surrounding the Firefighters' association that Thompson could exploit. Thompson could say, ‘Why didn't Bloomberg hold people accountable?'" he said. "The Deutsche Bank, the fact that the Mayor hasn't been held accountable for that and Scoppetta shown the door is pretty surprising."

He added that Mr. Thompson could make the Deutsche Bank building case a campaign issue, and accuse the Mayor of making the FDNY overly bureaucratic. Mr. Muzzio noted that the public often holds the FDNY in high esteem, and more so since 9/11.

"The Firefighters have a legitimate gripe," Mr. Muzzio said of Commissioner Scoppetta. "By all professional accounts he's not a Fire Commissioner. He's the Mayor's Commissioner. He's not the Firefighters' Commissioner."