Janet Long gets points for candor and a deduction for insensitive timing. The Pinellas County Commission candidate accurately described this week how firefighters' unions often play on emotions to protect lucrative pensions and other benefits that are out of step with today's economic realities. But she framed her argument poorly, and making that mistake on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks compounded the error.
Long expressed her political frustrations with the firefighters during a discussion with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Monday about overhauling emergency medical service in Pinellas. The system involves a combination of fire departments and a private contractor, and firefighters in St. Petersburg and elsewhere have opposed prudent changes to save money as they protect their own interests. Long volunteered that "firefighters have really taken advantage of 9/11 and what happened then and capitalized on it and the emotion.''
Fire chiefs and fire unions often tap into the public's appreciation for their work as they press their political positions. But Long was wrong to suggest they overtly use the heroic efforts and loss of life on 9/11 to gain a local advantage, and she was tone deaf about the timing of her observation. Words and context matter, which Long as a former state legislator knows.
The response by a fire union official, who described Long's remark as "an all-time low,'' also should be put into perspective. The Democrat was no fan of the fire unions as a state lawmaker, and the fire unions have endorsed Long's Republican opponent. Republicans who rush to the defense of the fire unions now should be asked whether they are equally supportive of the teachers unions.
As a state legislator and as a candidate, Long has always said what she thinks with little regard for political calculations. That candor is refreshing. But it can occasionally backfire, and this is one of those cases.