Remarks at the International Association of Fire Fighters Bipartisan 2008 Presidential Forum in Washington, DC

Hello, how are you doing? Thank you. Thank you all. Thanks so much and thanks for last night too. It’s an honor and pleasure to be here this morning. It was a lot of fun to be here last night.

You know as I look around this room which is packed with people whom I admire so much, I see a lot of old friends, and it’s been an honor to stand with you. We’ve stood together in good times and bad times. We’ve stood together when it seemed as though the darkness would never end and when we finally saw the light. So it is just a personal honor of the highest degree to be here today. And I want to thank also my friend and your great leader for that wonderful introduction. You know Harold and Vinny have been the heart and soul of leading this great, great union. And we’ve been through a lot, but the thing about going through tough times with Harold and Vinny on your side is that you know that you’re not going to be alone. And that has meant the world to those of us from New York. And we have a lot of firefighters from across New York here today and I want to thank you all for everything you do, every single day.

When I think about the work that you do and the service and commitment that you have given to your nation, I know that for all of you, courage is a job requirement. You don’t make this decision to be a firefighter easily or quickly. You have to think about the sacrifice and you have to think about your families. For you when you go to work, when you go to that fire house or that station these are not just your colleagues, these are members of your extended family. And I recognize how much this family, both the one that you leave at home as you kiss your wife goodbye or you tuck your son into bed are part of the commitment that you’ve made. And I want to also thank your family members because its not easy to see you walk out the door, to see you leave for that shift and just wait to make sure you’ve come home safely again. So I want to express my gratitude to your families and to everyone who love you and support you in the work that you do every single day.

You know, Harold referred to our meeting that we had on the morning of September 12. On the day before, September 11, not only our country but the entire world saw for themselves what firefighters are made of. You were the ones who ran into the fire. You were the ones who ran into the dust. Into those collapsing buildings. And for you some of your brothers and sisters it was the last time you saw them. But people who were not even on duty dropped everything they were doing to be there that day. People who didn’t even work for the FDNY but who worked out on Long Island, who worked in Westchester, who worked in Connecticut, who worked in New Jersey, dropped everything they were doing. And pretty soon teams started coming from around the country. Everybody sang we want to be there, we want to watch your back, we want to help search that wreckage to see if we can find anybody still alive.

When Harold and I spoke it was a time of shock and confusion. Harold was kind enough to describe what I said to him but I want to tell you what he said to me. He said, “We will stand with New York. Firefighters across this country and even across our border to the north will be there for you.” Well, Harold, you were true to your word. Not only you, but firefighters and paramedics and others poured into our city. You shared equipment with us; you raised money for us; you worked side by side with us. And you prayed with us. You were there when we needed you, and I want you to know that I will be there with you when you need me.

Now, we have to put this into a little bit of a context today. Because I know many of you including Harold and Vinny were perhaps a little unsure about me when I started running. Now that happens to me sometimes. In fact, you might recall, that back in 2000, you actually endorsed my opponent. But I never saw that as any kind of obstacle to working on behalf of your needs and your interests. Just as when I ran for the Senate in New York, I said I wanted to be a Senator who represented everybody, people who were for me, people who were against, people who didn’t have an opinion. And I wanted to find ways we could move a common agenda forward. And of course, a crisis brought us all together. And we rolled up our sleeves. Over the years I’ve made wonderful friends with many of you. I was very proud in my last election to have the support of the New York firefighters. That meant the world to me because without fail, we have to stand together. We have a lot of big problems that we’re facing, and I think we can once again reassert America’s leadership at home, restore our values, fulfill the promise of America, and get back to leading the world in the right way. Now that starts with restoring what I call the basic bargain.

So many of us grew up with that. You know, we were raised to believe that if you worked hard and if you played by rules you’d be able to build a better life for yourself and your family. Well, I don’t think in the last six years our country has actually been living up to that basic bargain. The leadership here in Washington seems to ignore middle class and hardworking families across our country. Under this president’s leadership household debt has soared, healthcare costs have skyrocketed, assuming that you have it. Wages have remained stagnant. Now corporate profits are up. And productivity is up, which means Americans are working harder than anybody in the world, but we’re not getting rewarded. I’ll tell you who is getting rewarded. Companies like Halliburton are getting rewarded with no-bid contracts, then they move their CEOs across the ocean to another country and leave us hanging right here at home.

I’ll tell you something else that we are going to have to deal with, the alternative minimum tax, which falls heavily on a lot of you and your families. You know, for six I’ve have been saying, with all due respect, do the billionaires in America need more tax cuts? Don’t you think we ought to cut the taxes of middle income people, in particular those who are going to be hit by the alternative minimum tax?

You know, for six long years, our President has not seen the vast majority of Americans. Not our middle class, not our working families. He’s looked right through them. To him, they’re invisible. You know, if you’re a child sitting in a crumbling school, you’re invisible. If you’re a small business owner who worries about energy costs or someone who can’t afford to fill up your tank — you’re invisible. If you’re a hardworking parent who needs affordable childcare while you go to work — you’re invisible. Even if you’re a soldier returning from combat who needs healthcare and disability compensation, you are invisible. Well, those days are over.

When we look at the way our first responders have been treated, if you’re paramedic who got sick after 9/11, if you’re a federal firefighter who can’t qualify for worker’s compensation or disability retirement, if you’re a retired firefighter who can’t afford health insurance, well, you’re invisible too. It’s great for the photo ops, but how about taking care of the people who taken of us across our country!

Well I want to make clear today you’re not invisible to the people of our country. And you’re sure not invisible to me. And when we retake the White House, you will no longer be invisible to the President of the United States of America.

And I want to say in this public setting that when I’m in the White House I’m going to be there for you whenever you need me on whatever you need me for. Because there isn’t anything more important to me than taking care of our first responders. It is part of our national security; it is part of our moral obligation.

And being there for you means continuing the fight to ensure that you have everything you need to do your job –the equipment, the people, whatever it takes. So let me tell you when George W. Bush tried to cut the funding for the Safer Act, which I co-sponsored, and the Fire Act, I took that personally. And with my colleagues, we fought him. And when he did it again, we fought him again. And I’m going to keep on fighting until FIRE and SAFER are fully funded, whatever it takes.

Now being there for you also means caring for every firefighter, every police officer, every paramedic, every volunteer or worker who has fallen ill in the aftermath of September 11. It wasn’t just people from New York who responded that day and the days to follow and the months to follow. It was people from all over our country, and when I first visited the site, the afternoon of September the 12, I could barely see anything, the dark cloud was so thick. But I could smell it, I could taste it, I could feel it. As I watched the first firefighters walking out of that curtain of darkness, covered in black soot, barely able to stand, dragging their axes behind them, I knew that the effects of 9/11 would last long after September 11.

Within days the so called World Trade Center Cough began to appear. Young men and women in the prime of their lives developed asthma and bronchitis and laryngitis, and their livers were polluted and their lungs were failing. And people who, before September 11 could lift three times their body weight, could barely stand they were so bent over in pain. They couldn’t sleep lying flat in their beds anymore; they had to sit up all night long. People who used to be able to run miles without stopping could no longer breathe going up a flight of stairs.

Working hand in hand with many of you and with the IAFF we created a program to screen and monitor those who were sick. And we got $90 million to expand it. And when President Bush tried to take $125 million back, we knew we had to draw the line. And you once again came in and helped us win that fight. Let’s just say the president picked a fight with the wrong people. We won it but we didn’t stop there. With your help I was able to introduce legislation asking for more than $1.9 billion for medical and mental health monitoring and treatment. We’re going to keep working on this, not just this year or next year but as long as our first responders, our workers, our volunteers, our residents need help.

Being there for you also means getting smart about homeland security. As you know all too well, we confront a new enemy and a new kind of warfare. It’s really the warfare of cowards. It’s people who sneak around and blow themselves up or place bombs in cars, who have a philosophy of nihilism. You know, they may dress it up in a kind of perverse version of religion, but it’s really about destruction and death. And it is imperative that we stand against them. Their warfare is not conducted by armies or navies but by criminals, by insurgents, by militias driven by this twisted hate. And it’s been frustrating for many of us because we can’t get the resources to match the rhetoric. We’ve got a lot of tough rhetoric out of Washington, but when it comes to paying overtime, getting you the equipment you need not the equipment they want to give you, providing the money directly to local communities and not passing it through the states. Well, we haven’t gotten what we know you need to protect our country.

And in this latest budget, the president is proposing to cut funds for first responders at the Department of Homeland Security to the tune of $1.7 billion. The way I see it, saying you believe in homeland security without funding first responders is like saying you believe in building a hospital without doctors and nurses. If we don’t fund you, we’re not funding our first line of defense, and we’re going to need to work together to make that happen.

And as Harold knows, and all my folks from New York know, we have been fighting for interoperable communications since September 12. We have put in legislation. We’ve asked for more money, but when firefighters can’t talk to police officers, when emergency responders can’t talk to those form another, we not only saw it on September 11, we saw it again during Hurricane Katrina. A crisis that really, once again, put firefighters in the forefront. Just think about what’s happening where your brothers and sisters are trying to operate out of trailers, and they’re still using ruined equipment that we still haven’t replaced.

What was a natural disaster was turned into a national disgrace, and we need to get the funds directly where they are needed. And being there for you means trying to end the war in Iraq in the right way, because firefighters have fought and died in Iraq. And we were heartbroken to learn that those who had fought and had been injured were languishing in Walter Reed. I went out there a week ago Friday early in the morning to meet with a bunch of soldiers from New York. Some of them had been tied up in the bureaucratic red tape until they were just beyond words. They couldn’t figure out “what had I done to deserve this? I served my country, active duty, National Guard, or reserve. Why am I being treated like that?”

Well, the 2006 elections sent a strong message that we do not want our young men and women in uniform to be in the middle of a sectarian civil war, where they don’t know who is shooting at them, and they can figure out whose side they’re supposed to be on. We’re trying to introduce some rationality in this, in the Congress, trying to stop the escalation because I profoundly believe that putting more of our young men and women into harm’s way — unless the Iraqis decide to defend themselves — we cannot end this war for them. If they’re not going to stand up and take responsibility, we should not lose another American life. We should end this escalation now.

I hope that the president will extricate us from Iraq before he leaves office. But let me assure you, if you doesn’t, when I’m president, I will.

Being there for you means standing side by side with you in the fight for your most fundamental rights. As Harold said in his introduction, I believe that it is absolutely essential to the way America works that people be given the right to organize and bargain collectively. Nearly 90 years ago, when 36 delegates gathered for the first IAFF convention, 84 hours work-weeks were the norm, and terrible conditions were a fact of life. You know why that’s no longer the case? Because of you. You organized, you unionized, you stood up for your rights. You said, “We’re not going to be invisible. We’re doing our part. You have to give us safe working conditions, fair treatment, and the right to bargain.”

But some people still don’t get it. You know they say that collective bargaining will undermine our national security. They think you haven’t earned the right to organize. You know what I say to them? I say, “Would you change places? Would you go into that fire? Would you stand on those collapsing floors and under those crumbling ceilings? Well the way I see it, when you plunge head first into burning buildings for a living, you have more than earned the right to organize for better conditions on the job.”

Make no mistake about it, the days of George Bush thinking the union bug is something he needs to squash are over. We are here to stand up for the rights of people who pull children out of raging waters and rescue people from flaming rooftops. We are here to stand up for the people who stand up for us. We have a lot of work head of us, and we could get some small victories along the way until we finally get the majorities we need to completely have an agenda that we support in the Senate. They can still stop a lot of what we believe in, unfortunately, but we just have to keep electing more people who see the world the way we do. And we certainly will make a lot more progress when we take back the White House.

Back after the days of September 11, so many of you came to me and said that the families of firefighters who had been killed were confronting piles of paperwork just to get the benefits they were owed. They were told it would take weeks or months, and the families didn’t have that kind of time. So again, working with Harold and his team, we put together a bill, and my friend Jerry Nadler sponsored it in the House, and within a week that bill passed into law. And when the bill passed, we didn’t declare victory or do some kind of big celebration, because the truth is, in the end, there was nothing we could do to give back to those families the people they had loved and lost. All we could do is to come together as a team and help as best we could. And in the end, we just followed the basic rule you live by: you never leave a brother or sister behind. Well that’s how I’ve tried to serve in the Senate. That’s how I’ve tried to set my priorities, and I want you to know that, if I do have the honor and the opportunity to be your president, that’s what I will continue to do.

Now, people who know me will tell you I don’t back down from a fight. And others use more colorful language sometimes about me. But that’s just fine with me. I don’t care what they say; I just care about what we do. That is what is important to me. And because I’m proud to fight for you because you fight for us, I’m going to stay on your side. I’m not in any way concerned by the fight we have ahead because I know we can win this fight. I know that if we stand together, we get our message out to America. If we steel ourselves to all of the criticism and the counter-attacks and the stereotypes and everything that they’ll put out, then we’ll be victorious. I have a little experience at staying the course and in sticking with people who stick with me.

St. Augustine said a long time ago that hope is really the combination of two things. It’s a combination of anger at the way things are and courage to change the way things are. Well, living by hope and understanding, we can’t be satisfied by what we see before us on homeland security or collective bargaining. But having the courage to step out and try to make a different future is one of reasons why I admire what you have done over the course of your work on behalf of firefighters. And I am thrilled and honored to stand with you, and together, we will make it clear that those of us who believe that courage and anger about what is, leads to hope, means that we will change America for the better.

Thank you all so much, and God bless you for everything you do. Thank you, take care.

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