DeLisle isn't shy about sounding the alarm for his firefighters MD. NEWSMAKER

December 02, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

Shortly before Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stood for re-election last month, members of the city's two fire unions were fuming over his just-announced decision to lay off 252 firefighters.

Leaders of two firefighter unions -- one representing officers, the other, non-officers -- agreed to plot a joint strategy for expressing their dissatisfaction.

When leaders from the officers' union arrived, they found the room already filled with followers of Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of the Baltimore Fire Fighters Union No. 734.

By then, the charismatic Mr. DeLisle -- who was in the news again Friday for sealing an agreement with the city that spared the 252 jobs -- had already won the day.

"When my committee got there, a lot of things were already planned," said John L. Seiss, president of the more conservative Baltimore Fire Officers Union.

What had been planned was an election-eve demonstration outside the mayor's second-floor office at City Hall, an in-your-face rally that drew about 500 firefighters and -- even more galling for a mayor on the day before an election -- television news crews.

"I thought [the demonstration] should have come after the election," Mr. Seiss said. "I didn't think it would be right to put that kind of pressure on the mayor."

But Mr. DeLisle, who was first elected union president in January 1981, is no stranger to controversy.

"If you don't do it before an election, when are you going to do it?" Mr. DeLisle would later ask rhetorically.

The oft-quoted union leader seems to enjoy the limelight, frequently taking high-profile stands in defense of his union members.

A 40-year-old Baltimore native who joined the fire department when he was 19 and has supplemented his work experience with writing, business and speech courses at local colleges, Mr. DeLisle appears equally comfortable lobbying in the corridors of City Hall or rallying his membership at a union meeting.

And that has paid dividends.

At a time when the mayor has said that the fire department is overstaffed and the city's other municipal unions have seen their memberships eroded by layoffs or forced into contract give-backs, the firefighters have not experienced a layoff during Mr. DeLisle's nearly 11-year tenure as union president. At the same time, members' pension benefits have been increased.

"We are certainly the most vocal union in the city, and I think that is why we've been able to make the gains we have," said Edward "Porky" C. Heckrotte Sr., a former fire union president and a member of the executive board. "The other locals in the city, CUB [the City Union of Baltimore], AFSCME [American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees] -- I don't understand what they're doing. I don't know how they survive."

As president of a 1,425-member union of workers who wear their in dependence like a badge, Mr. DeLisle is the first Baltimore fire union leader to succeed himself in office since the 1960s.

Union leaders attribute his longevity to a combination of political savvy, a youthful charisma, gutsiness and plain old good luck.

A man with a keen sense of political opportunity, Mr. DeLisle is not shy about putting pressure on elected officials by appealing directly to city residents.

For example, even before the City Hall demonstration, Mr. DeLisle's asked union members to go door-to-door in targeted neighborhoods, handing out leaflets warning residents that layoffs would threaten public safety.

And he has been good at picking winners. Although he had kind words in 1982 for mayoral challenger William H. Murphy Jr., he supported incumbent William Donald Schaefer, the eventual winner. Four years later, he guessed right again, this time backing Mr. Schmoke in his successful bid to oust incumbent mayor Clarence H. "Du" Burns.

Since taking over a union that had been wracked with scandals during the 1970s -- a rigged election, boozing on money pilfered from a widows and orphans pension, and a $7,000 interest-free loan to buy a Cadillac -- the union's image has been relatively untainted under Mr. DeLisle's leadership.

His colleagues say that Mr. DeLisle has qualities well-suited to leading a union with a straight-talking, macho image.

"His group is much more radical, and to be perfectly frank, it's harder to maintain some discipline," Mr. Seiss said. "Jeff likes to be out front, to get his hands on things."

Luck has also smiled on him.

Union members, embittered by years of "miserly" pay increases during the 1970s, persuaded voters to pass a charter amendment granting firefighters the right to binding arbitration three years before Mr. DeLisle became president.

Armed with the threat that an arbitrator might side with the firefighters, labor leaders were able to negotiate pay increases as high as 7 percent during the 1980s.

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