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    Political campaigns laying down the law

    Firefighters' and law enforcers' endorsements are a badge of honor for many candidates.

    By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 7, 2002


    They are America's heroes -- paragons of honesty, bravery and hard work. They also are the hottest political props of the campaign season.

    "Firefighters and law enforcement have always been trusted and credible figures in voters' minds," said Rick Wilson, a Republican media consultant based in Tallahassee. "But given the events of last year, they have moved to a new level of importance in the political world."

    In television ads and campaign fliers across Florida, candidates for every kind of office can be seen shaking hands, talking to and posing with people in uniform.

    Before Sept. 11, 2001, a police endorsement meant that a candidate was tough on crime. Now it is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

    "It's the in thing right now, the popular thing," said David Murrell, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

    Karl Schmitt, president of the Hillsborough County Firefighters Union Local 2294, said even school board candidates have called his office seeking endorsements. That never happened before, he said.

    "Why would a school board candidate seek us out?" Schmitt said.

    Experts say there are many reasons.

    Endorsements from a firefighters or police officers union often translates into campaign cash. So far this election season, Hillsborough firefighters have spent $8,700 on local candidates. Union officials expect to spend $20,000 before the general election.

    More important, an endorsement means that a large number of well-connected and highly respected men and women will knock on doors, make phone calls and stand outside polling places with campaign signs.

    "Firefighters give sweat equity," Schmitt said. "When we get behind a candidate, we get behind a candidate."

    State Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, is running for his third term. Farkas did not get police and firefighter endorsements the first time he ran for office, and he lost. But he did win their endorsements for his second run.

    "They're one of the reasons I beat an incumbent," said Farkas, one of many candidates who said they appreciated the value of police officers and firefighters long before the heroics of Sept. 11.

    Some observers say they are uncomfortable with the growing importance of public safety endorsements. They wonder whether it amounts to cashing in on tragedy.

    But you don't hear that from candidates.

    "I would say that my opponent made the most of (firefighter and police) endorsements in the primary," said Woody Isom, a candidate for Circuit Court Judge for District 37 in Hillsborough County. "But I can't say I wouldn't have done that if they had endorsed me."

    His opponent, Monica Sierra, mailed a flier before the primary that read, "Your vote for justice on Sept. 10." It pictured her with firefighters, police officers and sheriffs.

    "I'll certainly continue to advertise the endorsements," said Sierra, a first-time candidate. "I received 45 percent of the vote in a four-person primary. Having the endorsement of the police and firefighters contributed to that."

    Even candidates who don't get endorsed do what they can to associate themselves with law enforcement glory.

    Although police officers and firefighters backed her opponent, Hillsborough County Commission candidate Stacy Easterling used a photo of two tough-looking police officers in her flyers. She still lost in the primary to Jim Norman, who had 25 firefighters walking door-to-door for him.

    The trend isn't universal. Al Suarez, president of the Tampa Firefighters and Paramedics Union, says he has noticed no change since the last election.

    Neither has Bill Laubach, executive director of the Pinellas County Police Benevolent Association.

    "This year was as routine as any previous year," he said.

    And just because a candidate has the endorsement of police officers and poses for photos with firefighters, it doesn't mean that candidate will get more votes.

    Ask Locke Burt, who campaigned for the Republican nomination for state Attorney General. He lost to Charlie Christ in the primary despite massive support from the firefighters union and a flyer that said, "Remember 9/11/01. We will never forget."

    Rick Wilson, Burt's media consultant, called the firefighter support "magnificent."

    Still, Wilson said, "nothing in politics insures a win."

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