In an effort reminiscent of the bitter “Swift Boat” campaign during the 2004 presidential race, a group of New York firefighters who lost sons in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks is organizing a political committee to take on former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in Republican primary states.
A leader of the 9/11 Firefighters and Families group met Tuesday with union leaders and political consultants, readying plans to set up a tax-exempt committee that would fund appearances and a media drive against Giuliani.
Jim Riches, a New York deputy fire chief whose firefighter son was killed during the attack, said the group aimed to raise doubts about the central premise of Giuliani’s presidential campaign -- his leadership role on Sept. 11. “If we have to follow him around all 2008 we’ll do it,” Riches said.
Lauded as “America’s Mayor” for his blunt talk and compassion after the attacks, Giuliani’s political stock soared, and he built a multimillion-dollar consulting group emphasizing his leadership skills.
“A majority of firefighters believe that Rudy was a great leader on 9/11,” said Howard Safir, who ran the New York Fire and Police departments under Giuliani and now heads First Responders for Rudy, a group affiliated with Giuliani’s campaign.
But the former New York mayor’s frequent references to Sept. 11 on the campaign trail have infuriated Riches and about 20 activists who lost firefighter sons. The New Yorkers blame Giuliani for decision-making failures that they say contributed to the deaths.
After protesting near Giuliani fundraising events in New York to little fanfare, they now plan to raise their voices in Florida, South Carolina and other primary states seen as essential to Giuliani’s path to the GOP nomination. “When he announced his plans to run for president we felt he was doing it on the backs of our dead sons,” Riches said.
The 9/11 group is already being compared by some political observers to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group that damaged the candidacy of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 by impugning his Vietnam War service in the Navy. Both groups feature a self-sustaining constituency of passionate supporters and are aided by outside political forces eager to use them as vehicles in the presidential race.
“Starting small doesn’t mean you can count them out,” said Stephanie Cutter, a political consultant who countered the attacks as Kerry’s press aide in 2004. “When the Swift Boat group started . . . they had no money and no plan. In a matter of months they had enough money to go up with an ad buy, and that triggered their relevance.”
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth raised more than $25 million for media buys. Some of the money was donated in multimillion-dollar installments from reliable Republican fundraisers, including Texas businessmen T. Boone Pickens Jr. and Bob J. Perry. But last December, the group was fined almost $300,000 by the Federal Election Commission for exceeding spending limits and acting in concert with GOP campaign efforts.
The Swift Boat operation used an Internal Revenue Service exemption that allowed so-called 527 groups -- a reference to IRS code -- to raise funds and participate in political debate as long as they followed funding and election rules.
“To the extent that new 527 groups would like to do what the Swift Boat group did in 2004 may be subject down the road to much stiffer penalties than the Swift Boat people got,” said Paul S. Ryan, associate legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group.
According to several participants at Tuesday’s discussions between Riches and his supporters from the International Assn. of Fire Fighters union, the 9/11 group is leaning toward using a 527 structure. Riches said the group had already been pledged nearly $200,000 and hoped to raise as much as $1 million for a website, media buys and campaign travel.
The Giuliani campaign, reeling in recent weeks from dropping poll numbers and running controversies, has already taken steps to blunt the firefighters’ attacks. Heading the campaign’s First Responders for Rudy, Safir has appeared on several political talk shows with Riches, but was careful not to engage him face-to-face, recognizing the delicacy of debating a Sept. 11 victim.
“We owe all families that lost loved ones on 9/11 an unpayable debt, but finally this small group is admitting that this is a political attack with no other objective than to tarnish Mayor Giuliani’s good name,” Safir said Tuesday.
Earlier this year, the union produced an ad for its website that featured Riches and other New York firefighters criticizing Giuliani for blunders before and after Sept. 11. The New Yorkers said that Giuliani failed to provide first responders with proper radio equipment before the attacks and sharply reduced recovery teams at the World Trade Center site afterward even though many firefighters’ bodies had not been found.
Giuliani and his aides have long disputed the radios’ role in the collapse of emergency communications on Sept. 11. In a recent interview, Safir said that the “radios worked” but the repeaters -- which can extend the range of the radios into high-rise buildings -- did not.
The 9/11 group’s effort to raise questions about Giuliani’s performance before and after the attacks “takes on Rudy’s strength,” said Republican consultant Tom Edmonds. “I’m not sure that will go over with an American public that was impressed with what they saw.”
But Riches and fellow activists, seared by their losses and offended by Giuliani’s emphasis on Sept. 11 as the crucible of his leadership, say they expect to travel to primary states early in the new year to turn up the heat on the former mayor.
“Stay tuned,” Riches said.