Candidate's firefighter comments create firestorm

The one thing every candidate for local office welcomes is exposure.

But Janet Long, a Democrat running for the Pinellas County Commission, has earned the unwanted kind after her comments on the eve of Sept. 11 about firefighters using the attacks to their advantage created a firestorm.

On Tuesday, fellow Democrats distanced themselves and lawmakers of every stripe rushed to declare their love of firefighters. After being deluged with comments on Facebook, Long took down her page, then replaced it with an apology.

"It's the greatest mistake or error or bad decision by a candidate I've ever seen in the Tampa Bay area," said Todd Pressman, a longtime Republican consultant supporting Long's opponent, Neil Brickfield. "Her campaign is over. Done. Put a fork in it."

On Tuesday, Long was apologetic for the timing and phrasing of her remarks, but stood by the underlying point.

"I tend to be pretty bottom line, and the remarks I made (Monday) were part of a much longer, in-depth conversation," Long said. Making the comments on the eve of the 11th anniversary of the tragedy was not meant to offend or belittle the job firefighters do, she said.

"Nobody knows better than I do the sacrifices the families make," she said, referring to the fact she has been married for 34 years to a now-retired firefighter. "My choice of words, could they have been better? Absolutely."

Long said her comments were directed at union leaders, not front line firefighters, and "were born out of frustration" over the reluctance of those leaders to discuss badly needed reforms to Pinellas' fire and emergency medical services systems.

"Firefighter union bosses, leaders, have been able to bully the County Commission and local officials into making . . . deals we can't afford," Long said Tuesday. "We're talking about millions of dollars of taxpayers' money. I think that it begs for a conversation that has not been had in at least two decades. Every time that conversation starts down the path, it gets shot down."

• ••

This isn't the first time Long has been blunt on a public issue. She admits to having a strong personality. As she told a reporter in 2002 after winning her first election and a seat on the Seminole City Council: "I'm not shy."

A few years ago, while serving in the state House of Representatives, she appeared in front of the Lealman Community Association, a group dedicated in part to protecting the area from annexation. Among other things, she told them there were more important issues than boundary protection.

More recently, Long told a luncheon group of local leaders that she did not understand when "tax" became a dirty word.

"It's the price we pay for living in a civilized society," she said.

Former state Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who served with Long in the Legislature said, "She can be outspoken, no question."

But Kriseman said the statements she made Monday to the editorial board of the Tampa Bay Times, accusing firefighters of "taking advantage" of the Sept. 11 tragedy to gain higher salaries and better pensions were "appalling and perplexing."

Long is considered to be a moderate Democrat and there was talk in 2008 that Republicans might want her to switch parties.

In addition to being married to a retired firefighter, her younger son and his wife are police officers. Her older son served as a U.S. Army captain and flew an Apache helicopter and now flies for the company that supplies pilots to Bayflite.

"It just seems out of left field," Kriseman said. "Janet knows better and she knows what she said was stupid. Between the statement and the timing, it was insensitive."

Though they might not agree with the timing, some see a discussion worth having.

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said Long, who is campaigning under the slogan "common sense," may have tapped into the public psyche.

"I think what Janet captured is kind of a sentiment that is felt," he said.

Long, he said, was likely talking about cooperation between unions and the governments that pay them. Unions have always wanted more pay and benefits for their members, he said, but many people are upset because it seems that some unions aren't willing to be flexible when money is tight and taxpayers are facing rocky financial times.

Most county commissioners on Tuesday rejected the notion that firefighters have wielded Sept. 11 as a political weapon or exercised undue influence in the current negotiations over a new EMS system.

"Their input is critical," Commissioner Ken Welch said.

Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds said anyone evaluating the effect of Sept. 11 on salaries and benefits must remember elected officials' key role in union contract negotiations. In the months immediately after the attacks, the nation's sympathy turned toward all first responders.

"I think that played out through our collective bargaining process for several years," he said.

With distance from the tragedy and an economy in the tank, it remains to be seen if the spectre of Sept. 11 will remain during negotiations, Edmunds said.

• ••

The debate over union influence on budgets will continue, but the more immediate issue facing Long is an election two months away.

Her remarks did not cost her the firefighters' endorsements — the union had already backed Brickfield — but consultants and elected officials said the comments could create an energized opposition. Long's quotes are fodder for campaign mailers, commercials and speeches, Pressman said.

"I would personally be running a campaign on it," he said.

It's unclear how the fire union will handle the situation. Winthrop Newton, second district vice president of the Florida Professional Firefighters, said it's too soon for the group to have decided on a strategy.

At least one political observer believes Long still has a chance.

"It's a damaging moment, I believe, but this is not the shot that's going to sink the ship by any means," said Darden Rice, a Democrat and president of St. Petersburg's League of Women Voters. "Janet has lots of time to self-correct."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at (727) 893-8450 or alindberg@tampabay.com. Anna Phillips can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or aphillips@tampabay.com.

Candidate's firefighter comments create firestorm 09/12/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 12, 2012 12:22am]

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