Did These Firefighters Truly Stand by the Gov.?

So what was really going on last week when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger held a news conference flanked by roughly 20 firefighters fresh off the front lines of raging wildfires?

Was it a love-in, as the governor’s media corps suggests?

Or were firefighters forced to stand next to Schwarzenegger, like props, in a staged photo-op designed to boost his sagging support?

Well, I can tell you this:


It’s now officially campaign season, because I’ve heard it both ways.

Katherine McLane of the governor’s media corps was there with the boss, and she claims Schwarzenegger was warmly greeted -- cheered, even -- when he showed up to pat firefighters on the back for their brave work.

“I gotta tell you, everybody was cordial and polite, and there was no rancor. People were glad to see the governor,” McLane said, asking if I had seen the Associated Press story on the event.

No, I hadn’t. So she sent it to me.

Here’s how it starts. “THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- At a time when he has been at odds with firefighters and other public employee unions, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was greeted warmly by dozens of uniformed emergency workers Friday when he visited crews battling wildfires near Los Angeles.”

It must be true, then. And yet, something rings false.

The governor has created enemies in firehouses from Eureka to Escondido. He has trashed unions and waved his pompoms for Proposition 75, which would require public employee union members to sign off on political uses for their monthly dues.

So how did Schwarzenegger find 20 firefighters eager to pose with him?

He didn’t, says Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles, who went to the command center to check on the condition of colleagues who had been on the job for three days with little sleep. He says the men and women flanking the governor were acting under duress.

Some of the firefighters, he says, approached him at the command center. “They say, ‘Hey, we’ve been told we’re going to be a part of this press conference with the governor. Can they do that? Can they make us stand with him? We’re not happy about it.’ ”

McOsker told them to go ask their chiefs if they were required to follow such an order.

The answer was yes.

“It was utter hypocrisy,” says McOsker, whose differences with the governor go beyond Prop. 75.

Schwarzenegger has vetoed legislation to implement the fire protections recommended by a panel he himself appointed after the deadly fires of 2003. And yet there he was, trying to pass himself off as Smokey Bear.

McOsker said he began telling reporters at the news conference that the firefighters were ordered to stand up there with Schwarzenegger, and one scribe asked the governor about it.

Rather than dispute the contention, Schwarzenegger said everybody is ordered to do things at one point or another. Someone was ordered to put up the podium, he said. Someone was ordered to bring in the microphone.

“I don’t think we should bring politics into this,” said the governor.

I wish he wouldn’t always treat us like such boobs.

Of course it was politics. He’s got every right to show up at a fire and pat people on the back for a job well done, but the appearance can’t be separated from the politics.

Not that the firefighters aren’t guilty of their own politicking. I only know about the controversy surrounding the photo-op because I got a note from Carroll Wills at the California Professional Firefighters, who wanted to make sure the governor didn’t get away with passing himself off as their champion.

But the whole thing also raises a question that goes beyond politics and straight to the heart of voters’ concerns about Schwarzenegger. Does he ever get out of makeup, or is everything show business?

If firefighters were so happy to share Schwarzenegger’s company, I told McLane, have one of them call me.

“Hello,” said the voice on the phone. “This is Chuck Marin.”

Marin, a state fire battalion chief, told me he was the one who set up the news conference.

“The governor’s office asked, you know, for some firefighters,” Marin told me. “They asked for some fire engines to be ... placed behind the podium, and to see if any firefighters were available to stand back there.”

Marin said he made an announcement asking for volunteers. When they showed up, he didn’t see anyone with a gun to his head.

Little did he know.

“We were all in agreement amongst ourselves: Nobody wanted to do it,” said Capt. Wayne Ferber of the Ventura County Fire Department. “We were directed by one of our chief officers that this was something we were to do. If you were watching on the TV screen, I was to the right side of the governor, but I was sort of ducking so nobody would see me. I was doing my best to stay out of the picture.”

Hmmm, I said. I was told the governor got a warm greeting.

“No, he was not greeted warmly,” Ferber said. “I don’t think you saw a lot of smiling faces.”

Why so glum?

“My wife is a public school teacher, so we kind of get a double whammy here,” Ferber said. “The governor is taking on teachers. When he came in, we all had high hopes for him.”

Steve Francis, another Ventura County fire captain, said he was told his crew’s participation in the news conference was voluntary, and everyone declined.

“Then at some point in the process, one of our chiefs came up and said, ‘I’m ordering you guys to stand there in the backdrop,’ and that was it. There was no other conversation.”

“I’m a big friend of the firefighters,” Schwarzenegger said once his “buddies” had gathered round. “As a matter of fact, in one of my movies, I played a firefighter.”

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