By Tim Bradley, NCSFA Executive Director
On occasion I’m asked the question, “why can’t you guys (get so and so) passed”. It’s a disheartening question to me, because it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of how the political system works. It’s often compounded with the knowledge that the person asking, for example, has Representatives in the Legislature that adamantly oppose such so and so legislation, or I know that when I visited their Representative, they indicated they had not heard anything from the folks back home about the issue. All elective officials react to their constituents, or supporters. Some react to social or politically sensitive subjects based on their own ideology, but when it comes down to funding something, or issues that are not in the broader spectrum of current events, they react to their voters who can keep them in or remove them from office. If their voters change views on political or social issues, they know they need to vary their ideology, or loose the next election. Truthfully and realistically, many know that their support base reacts to the broader social or political issues when voting, and unless they hear significantly from their constituents on other issues, it isn’t on their radar. Obviously contributing and supporting their campaign, lobbying, and other influences come into the picture, but nothing works as well as constituent pressure, and realistically, most constituent pressure comes from ideological, social, or political issues. When we vote in an election, how much weight do we in the fire service as voters place upon different areas such as the candidates Party, a candidate’s ideology, their voting history, or how they’ve supported or indicated they will support the fire service? It’s a rhetorical question, but in reality, how we would answer that collectively is an indication of how much of a threat fire service issues are politically. If we ourselves, along with other constituents, voted for a candidate because of their low tax and reduced spending campaign, asking them to vote for a measure that costs money goes against the basis of why they thought we voted for them.
Just for example, the U.S. House, Senate, and Office of the President all submit budget numbers, and these are debated out into a final federal budget. All of the national fire service organizations have weighed in as advocates on the level of funding for The Fire Act Grants, SAFER, and USFA/NFA funding. If I were to tell you only one of the three elected groups (House, Senate, White House) met the number requested by fire service associations in their budget recommendations, and that there is an $45 million dollar difference between lower and upper recommendations for those programs, would it change who you voted for in the House, Senate, or even the White House who had proposed the lower number? In reality, would that issue overcome your philosophy on the proper candidate? Chances are it would not and does not, because we, like the general public, react to the broader social and political ideologies when we vote. They know that, which makes it all the more important that we call and weigh in on those singular issues that aren’t in the public spectrum. Have you called your Congressional Office and told them they either support the higher number, or they’ve lost your vote, and maybe the vote of your brothers and sisters in the fire service? Have you called them on any fire service issue? There are 13 Representatives and 2 Senators in Congress from NC. If everyone just contacted their own Representative’s office, that would be around 4,000 calls for each and 40,000 or so for the Senators. That would be impressive.
In NC the major fire service groups at the State level lobby the General Assembly. The issues get put in front of the Legislature in written and verbal formats, calls are made, visits are made, emails are sent. Activation of those issues, however, require constituent pressure, not in the form of media attacks which usually strengthens opposing resolve, but in good old fashion civil calls and personal contact, promises of support or suggestions of losing your support. A written resolution signed by firefighters in your department or county asking for support or opposition of a specific bill is an example. Before any of us ask “why an issue doesn’t pass”, we should first, all of us, ask ourselves “what stance does my local representative take on this issue”, or do I even know”.
From a nonpartisan, non-defensive, and non-accusatory point of view, the old cliché “All Politics are Local” needs to be expanded further as, “We all need to get in the game”. There are pockets in North Carolina where the fire service is very involved politically, but in other areas not so much.
Most of the issues we haven’t been effective on getting passed will cost someone money. That puts a Legislator squarely between the fire service and a loud and verbal public that wants lower taxes, reduced costs, or wants their limited funds spent on other things. That’s a conundrum, because many in the fire service are voters who want lower taxes and reduced costs as well.
These are the questions those of us who advocate are usually asked by elected officials: “Explain the issue”; “Why is it needed”; “What does it costs and how do you suggest its paid for”; and “How does it affect my constituents”? Any of the answers to these questions could put a damper on passage, but if they haven’t heard from their constituents locally about it, there is no apparent effect on their local voters, so it’s not an issue for them. That’s exacerbated if it goes against the focus that got them elected, government spending.
Collectively, we all have to get involved. We have to find better avenues of getting tough questions answered like impact, funding sources, where is the opposition. Elected Officials don’t like issues without solutions. We have to make protecting firefighters a local, public issue so that Legislators and Congress know it’s not just an issue for fire service voters, but for all their constituents who have expressed their support for firefighters.
The fire service is often referred to as the sleeping giant of the political world, but it may be important to review if it’s sleeping, or watching and content enough that singular issues don’t outweigh the bigger picture.