On a recent night this spring, Rosaleen Tallon stood outside a Bay Ridge catering hall waiting for Rudy Giuliani to arrive for a cocktail party that raised money for his presidential campaign.
Tallon, a Yonkers resident whose firefighter brother was killed on Sept. 11, 2001, was not there to cheer the former New York City mayor. Instead she was among a group of protesters looking to dispel what they say is the myth of Giuliani’s much-praised response to the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“I think if they knew the truth, (people) wouldn’t vote for him,” said Tallon, who is a leader of a group calling itself Sept. 11th Firefighters and Families for Truth. “We haven’t had a chance to go national, but we will. You can bet on that.”
The truth, according to Tallon and others involved in the protest, is that Giuliani’s actions as mayor, especially his failure to address long-standing problems with radio communications, made matters worse on Sept. 11 and cost lives.
“We need to tell the truth about the failures of the Giuliani administration before, during and after 9/11,” said fellow protester Sally Regenhard of the Bronx, whose son Christian died on Sept. 11.
Whether Tallon and her fellow protesters can influence the presidential election is uncertain, but their efforts could prove troublesome for a Giuliani campaign that draws heavily on his response to the terrorist attacks.
“His constituency, his platform, his base, is 9/11,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “That’s what made him, got him the ‘America’s mayor’ title.”
Though Tallon’s group counts only a few dozen active members, she was joined at the May 29 fundraiser by representatives of city fire unions, including Peter Gorman, then head of the city’s Uniformed Fire Officers Association.
Former New York City Fire Commissioner Howard Safir, responding on behalf of Giuliani’s campaign, downplayed the protests and said the mayor did all he could to support firefighters.
“The fact is that nobody cares more about firefighters than Rudy does,” said Safir, who also served as police commissioner during Giuliani’s tenure. “Rudy has a real affinity with firefighters and policemen.”
Safir argued that radio communications will always be problematic in a city as large and as densely populated as New York.
“The fact is that to this day there are not adequate radios,” Safir said. “Radio signals do not go through steel and concrete.”
Safir praised Giuliani’s response to the terrorist attacks and said he had never met a person better equipped to deal with a crisis than Giuliani.
“I travel the country all the time,” Safir said. “I speak to firefighters and policemen. I speak to ordinary citizens. They believe that Rudy did an outstanding job on 9/11.”
Yet some of the people most directly affected by Sept. 11 – firefighters and relatives of firefighters killed on that day – are opposing Giuliani’s candidacy. And their efforts appear to be reverberating across the nation.
“Rudy Giuliani was certainly not the hero that his campaign portrays him to be,” said John McDonnell, who took over leadership of the city firefighters union on June 1. “We’ll be at every (Giuliani event) in New York and we will speak to our brother and sister members across the country.”
The International Association of Fire Fighters, a national umbrella organization, sent a letter in March to its members describing what it termed as Giuliani’s “egregious treatment of our fallen 343 on Sept. 11th, their families and our members following that horrific day.”
In addition to radio problems, union officials also faulted Giuliani for limiting the number of firefighters involved in the search for victims at Ground Zero and rushing the cleanup at the expense of finding human remains.
“Mayor Giuliani’s actions meant that firefighters and citizens who perished would either remain buried at Ground Zero forever, with no closure for their families, or be removed like so much garbage and deposited at the Fresh Kills landfill,” the letter stated.
It has also been reported that the IAFF is producing a six-minute video to distribute to its member unions around the country detailing Giuliani’s failures.
Bill Glanz, a spokesman for the IAFF declined to comment when asked about the organization’s efforts concerning Giuliani.
Safir rejected criticism from the unions and the IAFF as simple “union politics” and expressed doubt that it would hinder Giuliani’s presidential campaign.
And the feelings of Tallon and members of her group are not universal among relatives of firefighters killed in the attack. Some still hold Giuliani in high regard.
“I felt that he did a good job, handling everything,” said Perry Sikorsky, a Wesley Hills resident whose brother was a firefighter killed Sept. 11. “I never had a problem with him.”
Quinnipiac’s Carroll said there’s no sign that the protests by firefighters or relatives of victims are having an impact on Giuliani’s standing across the country. Most polls show him to be the leading Republican candidate.
After so much time, Carroll added, it will be difficult for the unions and other protesters to change the image many people have of Giuliani.
“Giuliani, he personified what was going on that day for people who were at home watching on television,” Carroll said. “Can they tear that down? I don’t know.”